House and Senate negotiators sat down Wednesday and pledged to hammer out their first multi-year highway bill in a decade, saying stopgap measures are failing motorists and businesses who contend with America’s crumbling roads and infrastructure.
The legislative conference must meld competing bills from each chamber by Dec. 4 — the expiration date of a two-week funding patch set for approval this week.
“This is the last extension. Let me put an exclamation point on that,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican, said.
Mr. Shuster said the conference plans to finalize its report by Nov. 30, giving Congress just several days to send a final bill to President Obama.
“Obviously it’s going to be a challenge, so we need to buckle down and get to work,” he said.
Congress hasn’t passed a multi-year highway bill since 2005. That one expired in 2009, and Congress has passed a series of short-term extensions since then, making a multi-year bill a leading — yet elusive — priority for leaders in both chambers.
Lawmakers say hopping from one stopgap measure to another creates uncertainty for states that are trying to plan ahead and kickstart economic growth.
“This bill at least stops the roller-coaster of short-term extensions,” Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said of the $325 billion package.
The chambers passed bills that set forth six years of policy but only pay for three of those years, leaving negotiators to see if they can cobble together the rest of the funding.
As it stands, lawmakers are relying on money from the federal gas tax and a mix of other revenue streams the Senate assembled when it passed its highway bill in July, including Transportation Safety Administration fees that are typically reinvested in border security and proceeds from selling off barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Democrats have accused the GOP-led chamber of using “gimmicks” to fund half the bill instead of raising the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax.
They say the tax is overdue for an update and it would be sound policy, as it is a “user fee” on people who use the roads.