With no GOP input, stakeholders fear House highway bill may stall

Current highway authorization law expires Sept. 30 and agencies counting on the reauthorization worry there won't be time to get Republicans on board

Highway maintenance is a focus of the Surface Transportation bill (David McNew/Getty Images file photo)
Highway maintenance is a focus of the Surface Transportation bill (David McNew/Getty Images file photo)
Posted June 4, 2020 at 6:00am

A five-year, $494 billion surface transportation bill crafted by House Democrats received a lukewarm reception from stakeholders who warned that it lacked the bipartisan backing needed to get it passed by the time the current highway authorization expires.

The bill, to be formally be introduced Thursday during the House’s pro forma session, is a behemoth: It would almost double the $287 billion highway bill (S 2302) approved unanimously by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July. 

It includes ambitious greenhouse gas reduction provisions, would invest money in charging stations for alternative fuel vehicles, and would effectively punish states that do not make progress reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

It was crafted with minimal input from the GOP, as reflected in the comments of ranking Republican Sam Graves R-Mo., and two subcommittee ranking Republicans shortly after the text of the bill was released. 

The trio criticized the bill as lacking flexibility for states and giving “outsized” funding to urban areas at the expense of rural communities.

“We were not given the opportunity to address any of our priorities in this legislation,” wrote Graves in a joint statement with Subcommittee on Highways and Transit ranking member Rodney Davis, R-Ill, and and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials ranking member Rick Crawford, R-Ark.

Their concern was shared by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials who said while they appreciated the $83.1 billion included in the bill aimed at helping them address budget shortfalls caused by the coronavirus, “it is disappointing that this legislation was not developed in a bipartisan manner."

“Transportation has traditionally been a bipartisan issue and both sides of the aisle will have to work together to get a surface transportation bill over the finish line,” they said, noting the current law expires on Sept. 30.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer Neil Bradley echoed those concerns.

“With historic unemployment, tremendous unmet infrastructure needs, and less than four months before the expiration of surface transportation programs, this is no time for another partisan approach to infrastructure,” Bradley said.

Enough time?

But House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., defended the process, saying he has spoken to Graves repeatedly and staff from both sides of the aisle have been in touch. 

He said the two weeks between text introduction Thursday and markup scheduled for June 17 is designed to give Republicans time to offer feedback. By comparison, he said, the 2012 highway law allowed just two days between introduction and markup. 

“This should be much less contentious, with a lot more time for discussion in the interim period,” he said.

He said that while he believed he and Graves agreed on the need to build infrastructure resilient to catastrophic weather events, Graves’ staff seemed reluctant to embrace the notion of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

“That issue is absolutely key for my side of the aisle,” DeFazio said, saying he felt “very little room to work with Republican staff on that issue” but would “welcome” their comments.

DeFazio said he hopes the bill will be on the floor of the House the week of July 1.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, said the bill may ultimately be “the only subject matter bill passed this year” because of the COVID-19 crisis.

She said it would be a “dereliction of duty” to pass continuing resolutions rather than the transformative authorizing bill needed. 

Neither the House nor the Senate bills have so far determined how to pay for the federal highway projects. Since 2008, Congress has had to pour more than $140 billion in general revenues into the Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for through federal gas taxes but has fallen short of funding needs. The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993.

DeFazio, who has advocated an increase in the gas tax, said he’d back borrowing the funds required to pay any future shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. He said bonds could pay for the shortfall and be repaid by indexing the gas and diesel tax to inflation.

Doing so, he said, would generate “tremendous economic activity.” 

“We would come out ahead if we did it in that form,” he said.