House Buys Time for Transportation Overhaul

After passing a patch for the Highway Trust Fund, the House has until September to push the overhaul.

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By passing a $7 billion patch for the Highway Trust Fund last week, many in the House hope they've bought themselves enough time to pass a massive transportation spending bill that would reshape both how America's transportation operates and how it's funded. But with the administration and the Senate opposed to passing the larger bill now, it might not be enough to get the $500 billion package through Congress—at least not before the current law expires this fall.

The Highway Trust Fund, which provides cash for transportation projects nationwide, was expected to run out of money within the month. That left Congress with two choices before taking its August recess. It could try to hammer out new funding avenues as part of the House's $500 billion bill overhauling the entire transportation system. But that bill, which authorizes funding for transportation projects and details what shape those projects will take over the next six years, was far from finished. In particular, lawmakers hadn't agreed on how it would be funded. It also ran into opposition from the Obama administration and the Senate, who argue that it's too massive to try to push through now.

That left a second option: Pass an 18-month extension to the current funding law and deal with long-term solutions a year and a half down the road. House Democrats are frustrated with that approach, arguing that it only pushes a more permanent fix for transportation farther into the future. Plus, they say, the sooner the overhaul can be passed, the better, since it will enable transportation agencies to kick longer-term projects into high gear now—when the jobs those projects would create are desperately needed.

The compromise? The $7 billion infusion, passed by the House and Senate last week. The money will keep the highway trust fund solvent through September, avoiding a halt in work nationwide. Without some action, "you'd close down transportation projects in almost all 50 states," says Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who is his party's ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The direness of that was made worse by the fact that states, strapped for cash in the recession, have little money on hand to pay for the projects themselves.

But the $7 billion has another, political, purpose. It could work to undermine the administration's and the Senate's thrust for the 18-month extension. In particular, by plumping up the highway trust fund for another couple of months, it buys proponents of the $500 billion measure more time to whip up support. "This gives a little breathing room," says Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who is one of the overhaul's main backers.

Importantly, it also gives the House a chance to broach the topic of the overhaul anew in September, when even the plumped-up trust fund will run out. The House needs more time because the transportation overhaul ordinarily would be funded by the Highway Trust Fund, which gets funds from a tax on gasoline. The gas tax hasn't been increased since 1993, so inflation and the increasing fuel efficiency of cars, which means less tax revenue, have made the fund inadequate. With no money left for the overhaul, Congress needs to find a new way to pay for projects.

Although he and the others who favor of the $500 billion overhaul would find themselves "dead in the water" if they'd gone along with an 18-month extension, Mica says, "This does lead us to a collision course and new crisis at the end of September, which also gives us an opportunity to try to pass a longer bill and a permanent fix, rather than a Band-Aid. . . . This gives us a little bit more leverage, and time, to try to succeed in getting a long-term fix." And that makes it a rebuff to the administration's own attempts to undercut the $500 billion bill. "It's not what they wanted," Mica says.

Even so, most say that passage of the overhaul by September 30, when the current transportation law expires, is unlikely, with or without the $7 billion patch. "That's dead," says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation. "The idea that we would pass that this fall is ludicrous." Even supporters of the overhaul like Blumenauer agree, saying passage by both House and Senate is "not going to happen" by the fall.