Senate Committee Plans to Introduce Transportation Bill Next Week; ‘Pay-For’ Remains Elusive

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer said Thursday her committee plans to introduce and mark up a new surface transportation authorization bill next week. The measure is expected to be a five- or six-year bill that would keep current spending levels, adjusted for inflation. But elsewhere on Capitol Hill this week there were ominous signs that agreement on a way to pay for such a bill has yet to emerge. Meanwhile states continue to be concerned about key transportation projects that could be scuttled if Congress fails to act to shore up the Highway Trust Fund.

EPW Bill Expected Next Week

Senate EPW leaders announced that the committee’s proposed successor to MAP-21 will be introduced on Monday and marked up at a full committee hearing on Thursday, May 15. An anticipated release of the bill text this week was delayed when lawmakers reached a long-awaited agreement on a water resources bill (more on that below).

Of the soon-to-be-introduced authorization bill, Boxer said in a statement: “This job-creating legislation provides the long-term funding certainty that states, cities and businesses need, while maintaining and improving the efficiency of the successful TIFIA program and establishing a formula-based freight program to improve the movement of goods on our surface transportation system.”

Ranking Member David Vitter said: “It’s time to restore trust in the Highway Trust Fund and to build and fix our nation’s roads and bridges so people can carry out their daily routines. We’ll remain focused on a long-term reauthorization bill that invests in rural areas, expands flexibility for state and local governments and improves safety. And it’s incredibly important that we get projects streamlined and cut long, bureaucratic waits.”

But, as Boxer reiterated this week, it will be up to the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee to find the money to fund the bill and put the Highway Trust Fund on stable footing. It’s estimated that a six-year measure could require at least $100 billion. Boxer said at a Finance Committee hearing this week her bill would require coming up with $18 billion next year alone to fill the holes in the trust fund. Boxer indicated she doesn’t want to entertain a short-term extension at this point.

But Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden is said to be working on both short- and long-term options, Politico reported.

Politico also reported that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways & Transit, doesn’t think there is much chance of a long-term bill this year, at least until after the midterm elections, and that “some kind of patch” is “almost inevitable.”

And as Streetsblog, The Hill and others reported this week there appears to be little consensus emerging on how to come up with $18 billion, let alone $100 billion or more. Neither Wyden nor top Finance Committee Republican Orrin Hatch seemed willing to commit to a path forward at Tuesday’s hearing. And at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday, Senator John Thune and U.S. Transportation Secretary John Thune seemed to get into a game of “no, you go first” when the topic of getting behind a gas tax increase came up. Thune said he’s skeptical of the administration’s transportation proposal, which would rely on $150 billion from a corporate tax reform package that many say is unlikely to pass this year and that would only provide a short-term, one-time solution. He questioned why the administration has not pushed for a gas tax increase instead. Foxx said the administration would defer to Congress on the appropriate amount for drivers to be charged at the pump, The Hill reported.

“We are listening to what Congress says collectively,” Foxx said, according to Truckinginfo.

So we’ll have to see whether next week’s introduction of the EPW bill will move the ball forward and galvanize any opinion with regards to a possible ‘pay-for.’ Stay tuned.

MAP-21 Reauthorization & the Future of the Highway Trust Fund

  • Foxx also noted at Wednesday’s hearing what’s likely to happen if Congress doesn’t approve a new federal highway funding bill this summer. DOT would be forced to delay payments promised to state and local governments, something he warned of in a recent letter to state transportation department leaders around the country, The Hill reported. “As secretary, it also is my responsibility to let you know of the measures that the U.S. Department of Transportation will be required to take in the coming months if Congress does not take action to replenish the Highway Trust Fund,” he wrote. “While we will take every step possible to continue to fully reimburse your state for as long as possible, these will effectively require us to delay reimbursements that are owed to your agency and the transit agencies in your state.”
  • In addition, Foxx said this week a failure by Congress could cost the U.S. 700,000 construction jobs, The Hill reported.
  • And Foxx made the case for a longer transportation bill. “The cumulative effects of short-term measures Congress has passed over the years—18 continuous resolutions, for instance—has meant that the pipeline of projects is slowing and our ability to grow America in the right way is also slowing,” he reportedly told Washington, DC radio station WTOP. “We’ve got to make a change and we’ve got to do it now.”
  • Boxer on a short-term extension at Tuesday’s Finance Committee hearing, according to Politico: “I think that a short-term extension really leads to a major problem, it extends uncertainty.”
  • Reuters also reported this week on the transportation funding battle that could lie ahead this summer.
  • Alaska: KNOM Radio Mission reported this week on how the state DOT is preparing for a busy, $240 million construction season in rural parts of the state. The DOT is pursuing the rural projects in part because a number of larger projects didn’t win approval during the legislative session but also because state officials expect federal money for infrastructure to decrease in the years ahead.
  • Georgia: State highway officials warned this week that more than 70 transportation projects across the state could be delayed indefinitely if Congress fails to rescue the Highway Trust Fund before it runs dry, reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. More than half the money in the state DOT’s budget and two-thirds of the money the department spends on capital improvements come from federal sources.
  • Idaho: The state could lose up to $275 million in federal funding for transportation projects next year if Congress fails to act to rescue the Highway Trust Fund, state officials said recently, according to The Idaho Statesman. Idaho receives nearly half of its $520 million annual highway budget from the federal government.
  • Massachusetts: State political leaders say the dual deadlines to refill the trust fund and renew the federal transportation program represent a “looming crisis” that puts in jeopardy nearly $5 billion of proposed road, transit, and bike improvements across the state, The Boston Globe reported.
  • Virginia: Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee this week that almost 500 state projects, including 149 bridge replacements, won’t happen unless Congress acts this year. “I want to be clear,” he said. “If nothing is done to address this situation, the consequences will be dire.”
  • The publication Vox has a look at the reasons (effectively illustrated with charts) “Why America’s about to run out of money for roads (again).”
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts also looked at the “Funding Challenges in Transportation Infrastructure” using a series of charts.
  • The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program has a new report out on “The Extent and Impact of U.S. Infrastructure Jobs.” Among the report’s findings: “In 2012, 14.2 million workers were employed in infrastructure jobs across the country, accounting for 11 percent of national employment.”
  • In an op-ed for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Gary Elliott of the Laborers’ International Union of North America makes the case for a federal gas tax increase: “A 15-cent adjustment to the gas tax has won the support of LIUNA in part because construction workers’ jobs depend on it, but also because our families depend on a safe transportation system just like everyone else,” he writes. “Organizational support for securing the Highway Trust Fund with a 15-cent increase is as broad as public support — groups from the AAA to the Chamber of Commerce support it. For too long Congress has adopted a duct-tape approach to transportation infrastructure investment, leaving the rest of us with a pothole penalty. Congress should get in line with the public and take the logical first step to prevent more loss of life and further decline of our roads and bridges by passing a modest increase in the gas tax.”
  • Ben Adler of Grist writes in a recent blog post that “If the Chamber of Commerce wants to raise the gas tax, it should stop backing Republicans.”
  • Paul Yarossi of the infrastructure firm HNTB writes in a recent blog post that: “It’s crunch time for those of us in the infrastructure industry. This summer the nation must once again navigate a federal surface transportation authorization process in a deeply divided Congress following a brief 27-month reprieve. …Without a long-term, well-funded, sustainable funding source historically supplied by federal reauthorization, each day we are weakening the transportation building blocks that support American jobs, a robust economy and a healthy quality of life.
  • Meanwhile, a report this week from Standard & Poor’s finds that infrastructure investment offers benefits beyond job creation including in the areas of economic growth, increased tax revenue, increased property value and reduced traffic congestion. The report notes that investment in large infrastructure projects “can enhance efficiency and allow goods and services to be transported more quickly at lower costs.” Better Roads magazine has more on the report.

State Activity on Transportation Revenues

  • The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy reported this week that adjusted for inflation, state gas taxes have hit an all-time low in 10 states: Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, New Jersey, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.
  • California: Sen. Mark DeSaulnier has introduced a bill to test out a voluntary vehicle miles traveled tax in the state, CBS Los Angeles reported. “We want to do as Washington and Oregon have done in a much bigger state with much longer commutes…to make sure that we find out whether it would work, whether the public would like it or not,” DeSaulnier said.
  • Michigan: Two House committees moved forward a package of bills this week that would provide more than $400 million for infrastructure funding, according to the Transportation Investment Advocacy Center. The package included measures to shift an estimated $370 million in sales and use tax revenues from the general fund to road and bridge projects, a measure to replace the current 19-cent per gallon gas tax and 15-cent per gallon diesel tax with a 6 percent tax on the wholesale price of fuel, and a third bill that would increase fines and special permit fees for overweight trucks and revise some registration fees. Legislation to allow the Michigan Department of Transportation to enter into public-private partnerships remains in committee as critics raised concern the bill will permit the use of tolling in the state. The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press and Michigan Live have more on the debate over tolling in the state. A lack of consideration for transit funding has also come up in Lansing, Michigan Live also reported.
  • Missouri: A proposed sales tax increase is in jeopardy because House Democrats are upset about lawmakers overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of an income tax cut, the Associated Press reports. The sales tax increase, which would be three-quarters of a cent under legislation passed by the Senate (the House wanted a full cent), would go before the voters in November. Lawmakers have just five working days left before their session ends May 16.
  • Ohio: Voters this week approved a state borrowing package to help local governments pay for road, bridge, sewer, drinking water, solid waste and other public works projects, The Toledo Blade reported. The $1.875 billion, 10-year package renews and expands the State Capital Improvements Program and had the support of the governor and most of the General Assembly.
  • Rhode Island: A Senate committee this week approved a bill to remove tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and create a transportation infrastructure fund to pay for bridge and highway maintenance statewide, The Providence Journal reported.
  • Texas: A researcher from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute told state lawmakers the state has an unfunded need of $4 billion a year for transportation, Texas Public Radio reported. Texas voters will decide this November whether to give the state DOT access to $1.3 billion originally intended for the state’s Rainy Day Fund. If that proposition fails, the overall cost to maintain Texas roads could exceed a two-year projected need of $28 billion, officials said. The Houston Chronicle also reported on the funding challenges Texas faces.
  • Washington: The Seattle Times reported this week on how recent problems with the Highway 99 tunnel project aren’t making it any easier to win support for additional transportation funding.

Public-Private Partnerships & Tolling

  • Also at Wednesday’s Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sought to downplay the role of a proposed loosening of the rules governing interstate tolling in the Obama administration’s transportation proposal, Land Line reported. Foxx indicated he didn’t expect widespread use of interstate tolling and said the White House proposal was more limited than what was reported. “Tolling only becomes available if a governor requests it and even then, it has to be approved by (USDOT),” Foxx said.
  • Colorado: The legislation I blogged about recently that requires the state DOT to hold more public meetings about P3 road projects and requires legislative approval for any P3 project that exceeds 35 years went to Gov. John Hickenlooper this week, the Associated Press reported.
  • Illinois & Indiana: Officials from both states have signed an agreement to build the Illiana Expressway, a 47-mile toll road between I-65 in northwest Indiana and I-55 near Wilmington, Illinois, the Associated Press reported. Indiana will pay $80 million to $100 million, Illinois will pay at least $250 million and the remaining $1.51 billion of the project’s cost will come from private investors.
  • Iowa: State officials said this week that even if the federal government removed restrictions on tolling existing interstates as the Obama administration has proposed doing in its $302 billion transportation plan, tolls would be a difficult sell in Iowa, The Gazette reported.
  • Ohio: Legislation to allow electronic tolling on the Brent Spence Bridge was introduced this week in the Ohio General Assembly, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Ohio and Kentucky officials have said both public and private money will be needed to pay for the $2.6 billion reconstruction of the I-75/I-71 bridge over the Ohio River. But Kentucky’s Legislature adjourned last month without passing P3 authorizing legislation, putting financing for the project in question for this year. Ohio lawmakers say they’re committed to passing their legislation however.
  • In case you missed it: my article in this week’s Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter spotlights two of the state officials who will speak at next month’s InfraAmericas U.S. P3 Infrastructure Forum in New York City. Jodie Misiak from the Maryland Department of Transportation talks about the state’s public-private partnership to build the Purple Line light rail project. Bryan Kendro from the Pennsylvania Office of Policy & Public-Private Partnerships talks about his state’s Rapid Bridge Replacement Project P3. You can also read the full text of my interviews with Misiak and Kendro here in the Knowledge Center. The InfraAmericas Forum takes place June 17-18 at New York’s Grand Hyatt. It brings together state and federal public officials, infrastructure developers, investors, financiers, and regional transportation authorities for a variety of panel discussions on the state of the P3 industry. Sessions at this year’s event will examine such topics as the state of the North American P3 market, the extending reach of P3s, what the next federal surface transportation authorization bill might hold for P3s, how to have a successful procurement process, next steps for pioneering states that have led the way in the P3 arena, the evolution of payment agreements, and the use of P3s to build transit, port, and airport projects as well as social infrastructure projects like courthouses, prisons and hospitals. Among the other scheduled speakers is U.S. Rep. Sean Maloney (D-New York), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Public-Private Partnerships Panel. State officials from key P3 states including Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, Texas and Virginia also will be on hand. The full agenda and registration information are available on the InfraAmericas website.

State Multi-Modal Strategies

Ports

  • As noted above, a bicameral Congressional conference committee has reached agreement on an $8.2 billion bill to invest in the nation’s ports and waterways, The Hill reported. The Water Resources Development Act has been the subject of protracted negotiations for the better part of six months. The need to prepare the nation’s cargo facilities for larger ships that will pass through a newly expanded Panama Canal in a few years is one impetus for the investment.  
  • Virginia: Gov. Terry McAuliffe said this week he expects the arrival of larger container ships at East Coast ports like the state’s Hampton Roads port to create new economic opportunities for Virginia, reported The Virginian-Pilot.