By Billy House
The U.S. House voted to keep federal money flowing for highways and mass-transit programs for two more months, through the end of July.
Lawmakers voted 387-35 on Tuesday for the short-term measure to give themselves time to negotiate toward a longer extension. The Senate also plans to vote on the measure this week before Congress leaves Washington for a weeklong Memorial Day recess.
The legislation would let the Highway Trust Fund continue reimbursing states for highway and transit programs through the start of the busy summer construction season. The authorization is currently set to expire May 31.
The two-month extension "was not our preferred path forward," Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, said on the House floor before the vote. He said he would have preferred to extend the program through at least the end of the year.
"Unfortunately, we were unable to reach an agreement on a seven-month extension, so we are left with a two-month patch," Shuster said.
If Congress doesn't pass the measure, he said, "over 4,000 U.S. Department of Transportation personnel will be furloughed, states will not be able to be reimbursed, transportation projects and jobs across the country will be at risk."
The Congressional Budget Office estimated May 18 that the Highway Trust Fund would spend about $10 billion during the two-month period.
"We will more than likely have to pass another short-term patch" before August, Shuster said.
President Barack Obama's administration said Tuesday that Congress needs to "end the era of short-term patches and chronic underinvestment" in highways and mass transit.
"This continuing pattern of uncertainty has already caused several states to cancel or defer projects during the height of summer construction season," the administration's budget office said in a statement.
While the extension would allow the Highway Trust Fund to keep spending money, it wouldn't provide additional money because the fund is expected to remain solvent with existing resources during the two-month period.
Most of the money for the fund comes from a federal gasoline tax, which has been 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, a funding source weakened by greater auto fuel efficiency. The tax on diesel fuel is 24.4 cents per gallon.
The most recent extension of the highway fund was enacted in August 2014. States and advocates for roads and transportation have complained that Congress, by repeatedly relying on short funding extensions, has made it difficult to plan long-term construction projects.
Lawmakers disagree on how to pay for a longer extension, and many oppose raising the federal gasoline tax.
Spending from the Highway Trust Fund has outpaced its tax revenue since 2001. Shortfalls have been made up by periodic transfers from the Treasury's general fund. Those transfers totaled $54 billion from 2008 through 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, said lawmakers should be able to negotiate a long-term highway funding bill within two months.
"We need to enhance spending," DeFazio said. "We can't pretend, oh, we're going to do more with less. We're past that point.
"Look at what has happened to the purchasing power of the gas tax, which hasn't been changed since 1993," said DeFazio. Traffic volume has gone up, highway infrastructure needs have grown, and "so we're in a huge deficit situation," he said.
The bill is H.R. 2353.
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