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House Committee Holds First Highway Reauthorization Hearing

The committee chairman says he wants a highway bill on the House floor by August.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Tuesday he wants a new highway bill on the floor of the House by August.

Shuster's comments came during a Tuesday morning hearing of the committee that focused on reauthorization of the federal highway bill that expires this September.

Tuesday's meeting was the committee's first public hearing to address the legislation to MAP-21, the current highway legislation, which was passed in 2012.

"By passing the next surface transportation bill, we can ensure Americans quality of life and facilitate economic growth for years to come," Shuster said in his prepared remarks.

The discussion about the timeline for the next highway bill is an important one, given how long it took for Congress to enact MAP-21. Before Congress passed that legislation in June 2012, it went two-and-a-half years without a permanent highway bill, and it passed nine short-term, temporary highway bills.

The situation frustrated state and local leaders, who said without knowing exactly how much money they could count on in the long-term, it was difficult to plan big construction projects that require years of financial obligations.

"We need certainty," Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin testified. "We need certainty. When there's no permanency, no long-term vision for funding our nation's infrastructure... that affects our state."

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed echoed those sentiments. "We're taking on projects that are multi-year projects," Reed says. "It helps us when we know what's going to be available -- good, bad or indifferent."

But federal lawmakers face a serious challenge in figuring out how, exactly, to pay for federal highway and transit programs in the long-term. Several federal estimates indicate that the Highway Trust Fund won't be able to meet its obligations come 2015.

Yet federal lawmakers have historically little appetite for increasing 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax, a main source of transportation funding that has remained unchanged for 20 years.

The Congressional Budget Office says that bringing the trust fund back into the black would require cutting federal transportation spending from $51 billion to $4 billion, raising the gas tax by 10 cents or a combination of the two.

Congress could also simply bail out the fund with general fund revenue, a step it's taken often in recent years but would likely come with political challenges as well, given the anti-deficit climate in Congress.

Despite the funding question being a crucial one facing the committee, there was very little discussion of how, exactly, Congress could solve it.

Democrats on the committee rallied against recent proposals from some conservatives to "devolve" the federal transportation program to the states by reducing federal taxes for transportation while simultaneously transferring authority over highways and transit to states and giving them block grants to fund it.

Fallin said she did not favor that idea and said there's a key role for cities, states, and the federal government in setting transportation policy. 

Communications manager for the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute and former Governing staff writer
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