US: Highway Bill Outline Leaves Funding Details by the Wayside

Senate authorizers previewed a surface transportation bill on Wednesday, but the announcement was long on theme and short on details -- including how the lawmakers would pay for their plan.

One of the most significant parts of the outline offered by Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., Max Baucus, D-Mont., and David Vitter, R-La., is a declaration that transportation programs would be funded "at current levels."

Doing that would seem to require some kind of revenue increase or budget gimmickry. According to the Congressional Budget Office, current annual funding levels are about $13 billion above what the Highway Trust Fund can sustain.

Boxer acknowledged the trust fund shortfall, and said she is counting on Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, to figure out financing. An additional $6 billion would be needed during the first two years, and $12 billion annually after that, she said.

The endorsement of current funding levels appears to indicate some bipartisan support for finding additional revenue, whether new or redirected from other programs.

Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the bill's total cost would be $339.2 billion over six years, roughly equivalent to the current baseline plus inflation.

Although Boxer's figures assumed a six-year bill, she acknowledged that the funding realities may force a shorter-term approach. "We'd love to get six, but we're realistic," Boxer said. "We'll see if they [Finance] can figure out this funding. Whether it's a way forward for six or for two."

The spending envisioned by the senators on Wednesday would be significantly less than the $556 billion the Obama administration has proposed. Unless the administration can produce the necessary revenue, its proposed spending level is not realistic, Boxer said.

"We said to them, 'If you can show us the money we're happy to look at it,'" Boxer said. "We're going with what we think we can get through the U.S. Senate."

Senate aides said a detailed draft bill has been prepared and will be released soon. Boxer plans to put the finishing touches on the bill over the next two weeks, and then start hearings with a goal to mark up the legislation before the July Fourth recess.

The senators will propose a plan to leverage about $180 billion in private capital over six years by providing an additional $1 billion annually for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which provides direct loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit for infrastructure projects of national and regional significance. The maximum federal share of project costs would be increased from 33 percent to 49 percent.

The senators are also proposing to outlaw earmarks, consolidate programs and expedite projects.

Transportation lobbyists welcomed the Senate proposal because, unlike the approach the House is expected to take, it would not reduce current funding. "Contrast with the [expected] House bill and this is an incredibly positive statement," one lobbyist said.

But the lobbyist added that the House Republican majority's reluctance to support infrastructure spending sets the stage for a battle. "This situation is going to get real soon, but it's not real yet. It's just still 'press-release land.'"

Source: CQ Today Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill. ©2011 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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