Senate panel passes 6-year highway bill, minus funding

AP News
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Posted: Jun 24, 2015 10:58 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate panel unanimously passed a bill Wednesday to boost spending on highway projects and give state and local governments more flexibility to spend federal money on local projects.

Lawmakers, however, have yet to come up with a way to pay for it.

The federal government relies on an 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax to pay for highway projects. But the tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993, no longer generates enough money to cover federal spending, and lawmakers are reluctant to increase it.

The result has been a series of short-term funding bills. The latest expires at the end of July.

The bipartisan bill passed Wednesday would authorize federal highway projects for the next six years. It would increase spending by an average of 3 percent a year while giving states more flexibility to spend federal money on local road and bridge projects. It would provide new funding to improve freight delivery and would set aside money for rural projects.

"Our nation's roads and highways have suffered under too many short-term extensions, which have led to higher costs, more waste, and less capability to prioritize major modernization projects to address growing demands on our interstates," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The bill "will provide states and local communities with the certainty they deserve to plan and construct infrastructure projects efficiently," Inhofe said.

Inhofe's committee passed the bill without dissent. Senators will now work to come up with a way to pay for the bill before sending it to the full Senate.

The gasoline tax generates about $35 billion a year, and the federal government spends about $50 billion a year on transportation projects. Congress would have to come up with an additional $90 billion to $100 billion over the next six years to fund the long-term measure.

Lawmakers in the both the House and Senate have been struggling for years to come up with a long-term solution to pay for transportation projects, and President Barack Obama has made it a priority.

If they are unsuccessful this time, lawmakers would have to come up with another short-term patch to avoid a shutdown in the middle of construction season.

The six-year bill was negotiated by the top Republicans and Democrats on the Environment committee. It was sponsored by Inhofe, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

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