Senate looks for way to fund highways before August deadline

Jul 20, 2015
Originally published on July 20, 2015 7:20 pm

It was only a few weeks after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, establishing the Interstate Highway System, that Missouri awarded the first contract in the nation for road work to begin on what was then a section of U.S. Route 40 — now, I-70, in St. Charles County.

Unless lawmakers act by the end of July, the 59th anniversary of that contract will be celebrated on Aug. 2, with the flow of federal dollars being shut off to Missouri, and other states, for needed maintenance, repair and reconstruction projects.

The Senate is scheduled this week to take up legislation to keep those dollars flowing beyond July 31, but whether the result will be another short-term fix or a more elusive multi-year plan is yet to be seen.

Lawmakers, unwilling to increase the federal motor fuel tax, have passed 34 short-term extensions of the highway trust fund since 2009. The Interstate Highway System, as envisioned by Eisenhower in 1956, was declared completed 35 years later, in 1992. The last increase in the motor fuel tax to support maintenance and repair projects along the highway system came one year later, in 1993. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met Friday with a group of news organizations, including St. Louis Public Radio, to discuss the fate of the Highway Trust Fund.

In addition to lawmakers' reluctance to increase the federal motor fuel taxes for more than 20 years, Foxx said the increased “fuel efficiency of vehicles has created a situation where you still have people driving, but the revenue position of the Highway Trust Fund is getting worse and worse.” That annual shortfall now totals about $15 billion. Even simply closing that gap won’t be enough to make a significant dent in the backlog of needed repairs and the rebuilding of roadway and bridges.

He said lawmakers, operating from two principles of not wanting to either increase the motor fuel tax or take the country further into debt to address crumbling highways have done an assortment of what Foxx called “crazy, gimmicky things to keep us going, keep us afloat, but the conversation we’re not having is what is replacing that $15 billion get you.” He quickly answered his own question saying: The “jury’s in” it won’t get you a better system.

For example, last year, lawmakers managed to squeeze 10 months of additional funding for highway repairs by making adjustments affecting 10 years worth of federal employee pensions. This year, they’re considering a host of ideas, including so called “off sets” of other federal funding to pay for another short-term extension. Other ideas include repatriating an estimated $170 billion in overseas profits held by U.S. companies.

That idea was introduced this year by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rep. John Delaney, D-Md. Under the proposal, U.S. companies would get a tax break for bringing those tax dollars back home.

Blunt says he’s committed to the idea of a multi-year plan, but he wants to find a solution “that goes beyond increasing taxes.” Secretary Foxx, said he believes “momentum is pushing toward some type of business tax reform; international tax reform to help us get something done.” He said, lawmakers “realize that finding an effective ‘pay-for’ for a long-term bill is going to be a challenge.” The Department of Transportation is backing a plan that relies in large part on variation of that idea.

Right before lawmakers left town for their Memorial Day break this year, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, expressing his frustration at how a growing number of Republicans don’t want the federal government to continue supporting the Interstate Highway System, preferring instead to shift that responsibility to the states. At the time, he talked about how in Illinois the only thing better for a community’s financial well being than being near an Interstate highway, was to be near where two Interstate highways connect.

Durbin also issued a threat of sorts at the time to Republican leaders; allow debate on a multi-year highway funding bill, or he would urge his fellow Senate Democrats to back only the shortest of short-term extensions, to pressure congressional Republican leaders into considering a multi-year plan.

Last week, the House approved an $8 billion funding plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund dolling out dollars until at least December. Senate Republicans are trying to put together an $80 billion plan that would keep federal dollars flowing until after next year’s presidential election.

The Senate is set to take up the House bill on Tuesday and could offer an amendment to that plan if negotiators can work out details for a longer-term plan. If not, GOP leaders have indicated a willingness to approve the House plan to buy time for further negotiations.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has said, that she's concerned that Missouri might miss out on critical highway funds from Washington if lawmakers in Jefferson City don't commit more dollars to road projects.

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