- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Senators announced a bipartisan agreement Tuesday on a six-year bill to fund highway and transit construction, expanding the current pace of building — but the agreement will be doomed unless Congress can find a way to pay for it.

The bill would boost transportation infrastructure spending by $90 billion over the life of the bill, and Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, a Republican, and ranking Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, called it a carefully crafted compromise.

They are hoping to clear the bill through their committee this week, then hope the Finance Committee can find the funding to round it out before the end of July, when existing highway funds run out. If the fund goes belly up, the government could no longer reimburse states for their projects, and some may default on their debts.

“I think if you have a heartbeat and a pulse, you understand — this needs to be done,” Mrs. Boxer said.

But winning passage will not be easy. A long-term highway bill has eluded Congress for years, as lawmakers squabble over funding and rely on stopgap patches or two-year extensions. A six-year authorization would its longest in about a decade.

The short-term bills have left states and industries unable to plan for the long-term, left 61,000 bridges structurally deficient and left roughly half of the country’s roads in disrepair. Faulty infrastructure has a ripple effect throughout the economy, the bill’s backers said — people wreck their cars, and manufacturers struggle to bring their products to major ports.

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Current highway funding is based chiefly on the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax — 25 cents for diesel — and levies on heavy trucks.

The tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and would approach 30 cents per gallon if it had been adjusted for inflation. Cars have also become more fuel-efficient over the two decades, so revenues are down.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Tuesday his preference is raise the gas tax, but that idea has been rejected by GOP leaders who say a gas tax hike is a non-starter.

“Obviously the key is, how are you going to pay for it?” Mr. Hoyer said of a final highway bill deal.

Republican leaders on the House Ways and Means Committee are trying to see if enough revenue can be squeezed out of a plan to try to entice companies to repatriate foreign income back to the U.S. But that’s been an elusive goal.

“We have not made any decisions on an approach or time frame,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.

Mrs. Boxer said she’d be open to a form of international tax reform or a laundry list of other ways to fund it, so long as it gets done.”This is an investment that comes back to us over and over again,” Mrs. Boxer said.

But Mr. Inhofe said it’s up to the money committees to find the funds.”That isn’t our job to do that, and they are working on that as we speak,” Mr. Inhofe said.

Mrs. Boxer and Mr. Inhofe are staunch opponents on most environmental issues but said if they could “swallow hard” and accept the compromise infrastructure bill, then other lawmakers can find a way to come up with funding and push the bill across the finish line.

“This is the one area where Barbara and I love each other,” said Mr. Inhofe.

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