A Senate panel on Thursday approved a bill to keep federal highway programs going for the next six years, but it remained unclear whether Congress would act in time to prevent a disruption in transportation aid to states this summer.
The Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill that would keep transportation spending at current levels, plus inflation, in a rare burst of bipartisan bonhomie, with Democrats and Republicans lavishing praise on each other. No one spoke against the measure, which passed on a voice vote.
"I never remember a transportation bill that went through this way without any controversial amendments even offered and withdrawn," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the panel's chairman.
But the bill doesn't address the biggest transportation question facing Congress: how to find an extra $100 billion to close the gap between what lawmakers want to spend on highway and transit programs and how much revenue federal gas and diesel taxes and other user fees bring into the federal Highway Trust Fund.
Finding the money is the responsibility of the Senate Finance Committee, but its chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., hasn't signaled how he plans to do that. The White House and Congress have been unwilling thus far to raise the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and the 24.4-cents-a-gallon diesel tax, which haven't been increased since 1993.
The Department of Transportation estimates the federal Highway Trust Fund will go broke on Aug. 29, but disruptions in payments to states could happen as early as July, when the balance in that account is expected to drop below $4 billion. Without that cushion, it becomes difficult to ensure incoming revenues can keep up with outgoing aid to states.
The bill largely maintains the status quo and avoids controversial new proposals. Democrats made concessions aimed at ensuring that rural states share in federal aid for major projects in order to win GOP support.
One significant new program in the bill is aimed at eliminating bottlenecks that hinder the transportation of freight. The bill authorizes $400 million for that next year, gradually increasing to $1 billion in the last year of the bill.
Transportation officials in several states are already making plans to delay commitments to new construction projects because of the uncertainty over the flow of federal dollars. Should the federal government be forced to slow down or cancel payments to states, it could result in the shutdown of projects across the country and widespread layoffs of construction workers.
That would have "a domino effect that will be felt throughout our economy," Boxer said.
Most transportation experts say that's unlikely to happen. They expect Congress will wind up doing what it has done repeatedly since 2008, which is dipping into the general treasury for enough money to keep transportation aid flowing for a few weeks or a few months, and then repeat the exercise all over again.
Keeping transportation programs continually on the edge of insolvency makes it difficult for states to plan, especially for more costly, major projects that take several years to complete. The White House and lobbying groups representing interests ranging from the asphalt industry and construction workers to local transit agencies and bus drivers are spending this week -- which they dubbed "infrastructure week" -- trying to raise public support for a long-term transportation bill that would provide funding certainty to states and increase overall transportation spending.
Obama carried his plea for more money to replace aging infrastructure on Wednesday to New York, where the federal government has provided a $1.6 billion loan to rebuild the busy Tappan Zee Bridge. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Cleveland to highlight federal investment in a $17.5 million new light rail station that will open in 2015.