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Long-term transportation bill moves toward floor vote in House

The surface transportation reauthorization would cover six years and include $325 billion in funding for freight infrastructure projects, but critics argue STRR doesn’t address the growing gap between investment and available funds.

   The U.S. House of Representatives is gearing up to vote this week on a six-year surface transportation bill endorsed by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee a dozen days ago, according to media reports from the congressional beat.
   The $325 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 would reauthorize federal transportation programs, including highway and bridge construction aid. According to online news outlet The Hillthe House Rules Committee is meeting to consider almost 270 amendments lawmakers want to attach to the spending plan.
   The measure includes for the first time a dedicated fund for freight transportation projects.
   Passage of any bill will have to be reconciled with the Senate’s DRIVE Act, which passed in July and would authorize about $258 billion in funding over six years, but with only three years of guaranteed funding. The bills are very similar and lawmakers expect to make short work of any necessary compromises, especially since they only passed a three-week extension of expiring programs last week.
   Getting a transportation bill through the House will be one of new Speaker Paul Ryan’s, R-Wis., first challenges. The trick will be figuring out how to pay for the final three years given severe annual shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund of about $16 billion. In the past, Congress has used accounting gimmicks to move money around from other parts of the budget or borrowed the money to meet obligations to states for construction projects, but hardcore conservatives oppose any moves that aren’t paid for. 
   Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., for example, filed an amendment that would raise the federal gas and diesel taxes 15 cents over three years and index them to inflation going forward. The motor fuels taxes (18.4 cents per gallon for cars and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel) haven’t been raised since 1993 and improved fuel efficiency for vehicles means drivers are consuming less fuel, while infrastructure improvement needs have continued to grow.
   “Naming the underlying bill a reauthorization doesn’t make it so,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “The bill under consideration calls for a six-year period of spending authority, and hopes to be funded for three years with a combination of budget gimmicks and tax code smoke and mirrors over the next decade. But Congress will be back to square one when that money runs out, facing an even bigger hole in the Highway Trust Fund – and once again throwing hundreds of thousands of jobs into uncertainty.
   “My amendment will not only fully fund H.R. 3763, but also provide enough revenue to increase investment above the current, anemic levels of spending. A long-term transportation reauthorization should be fully funded with revenue that is sustainable, dedicated to transportation, and big enough to give states and local governments the federal partnership they need.” 
   Many industry groups support a hike in the gas tax to pay for highway maintenance and new capacity, but there appears little appetite among most lawmakers to increase the tax and potentially draw the ire of voters. Ryan and others support using proceeds from corporate tax reform as a way to fund infrastructure investment, but analysts note that tax reform remains a difficult goal and that any revenue would only come from a one-time infusion of collections from corporations that might be induced to repatriate overseas profits because of lower rates.
   Critics say neither the House or Senate bills are large enough to adequately address years of under-investment in the nation’s highway, bridge and rail infrastructure.

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