The Senate easily passed a transportation bill Wednesday that breaks precedent by not relying solely on federal gas taxes to foot the bill for highway, infrastructure and public-transit projects nationwide.
The action puts increased pressure on the House to pass its own stalled "highway bill" before the government's authority to collect federal gasoline and diesel taxes expires at the end of the month.
The $109 billion Senate bill, crafted in a rare bipartisan effort and passed by a vote of 74 -22, would increase the amount of money available for states by raising current spending levels to take into account inflation over the past several years.
"When it comes to infrastructure, we understand that presidents, Republican and Democrats, have always said that you just can't have a thriving economy if you can't move goods, you can't move people and you can't do it efficiently," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat who co-wrote the bill.
"When it gets down to something we really need to do, we'll get it done, and we did," said the bill's other author, Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.
The Senate plan would mostly close a $13 billion gap between transportation costs and the gas-tax funded Highway Trust Fund, which traditionally pays for federal transportation projects. But in order to make up the difference, the measure calls for spending cuts elsewhere in the budget and an almost $5 billion transfer from the general fund over the next two years.
Congress already has transferred $35 billion from general federal revenue to pay for highway spending that exceeded trust fund revenue since 2008, adding to the government's deficit. But the Senate measure is the first transportation bill that explicitly calls for such a practice — a move critics say is fiscally irresponsible and goes against the 1956 law that set up the trust fund.
"This bill proves that the bipartisan addiction to big spending in Washington hasn't ended," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. "This bill requires a $13 billion bailout because senators in both parties insisted on reckless spending increases far above what is available in the highway trust fund."
The largest sources of money for the trust fund are federal taxes of 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. Revenue from those taxes has declined in recent years because of increased vehicle fuel efficiency and because Americans are driving less.
Compounding the trust money crunch are increased highway construction costs and a gas-tax rate that has remained the same since the Clinton administration.
Scott Lilly, a transportation policy expert with the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, said the current gas-tax system isn't an effective or sustainable way to solely fund national transportation needs.
"The 18.4 cents we pay in highway tax is worth about 30 percent less today than when the tax was imposed in 1997, and cars today get about 18 percent more mileage than they did in 1997," Mr. Lilly said. "You put those two things together and vehicles are paying about 40 percent less per mile driven than they were 15 years ago. And that's the crux of this crisis."
Emil H. Frankel, a transportation policy expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, also said the current gas- tax rate is unsustainable and should be increased.
"In the long haul, we've got to shift to a more direct user-based system, like a mileage fee," he said. "In the short run, the gasoline tax should be set at levels to meet the obligation."
But Mr. Frankel applauded the Senate bill, saying it established important first steps that "can lead to more responsible decision making about how we invest scare resources."
The White House also praised the Senate for passing the bill and urged the House to do the same.
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