Barely two weeks before the current program expires, the U.S. Senate passed a new transportation bill Wednesday (March 14) that would keep federal money flowing to states for highways and transit systems for another two years.
The Senate's $109 billion plan would make several changes to try to make federal transportation processes more efficient. It would make no major changes in the main source of federal funding for transportation projects, but it would add some funds by using money now dedicated to helping clean up leaks from underground fuel tanks and by ending tax credits for paper makers.
But the senators overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to let states raise money by commercializing rest stops on interstate highways. Opponents said the move would be bad for local businesses along the interstates.
The chamber also soundly rejected an alternative put forward by U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, to gradually phase out the federal gas tax and to leave the primary responsibility for paying for roads to the states.
Still, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) praised senators for passing a bill. “Their bipartisan approach,” said executive director John Horsley, in a statement, “helped set a path forward for this bill that not only provides a greater degree of funding certainty for states, it also establishes reforms that will streamline project delivery, consolidate programs and improve performance reporting and accountability.”
The plan cleared the Senate with bipartisan support, on a vote of 74 to 22. But it did so mainly by sidestepping a major question: How to pay for a growing wish list of transportation projects with a dwindling amount of money brought in by the federal gas tax. Largely because of that question, Congress passed short-term highway funding bills instead of a major update eight times since 2009.
A ninth extension may still be in the cards. The House has not passed its own transportation bill, because of divisions within the Republican majority. Speaker John Boehner has backed a five-year plan but could not find the votes to support it. The House may vote on the Senate version or opt for yet another temporary bill instead.
Horsley suggested that another extension would give Congress more time to reach a final agreement on a larger transportation package.