After several delays, Congress voted late Thursday to keep federal highway money flowing to states just hours ahead of a midnight deadline.
But the issue is far from resolved, as lawmakers failed to reach a long-term deal on how to replenish the dwindling Highway Trust Fund, which helps pay for federally funded transportation projects, instead punting the matter until next spring.
The House-drafted highway bill cleared the Senate by a vote of 81-13 and will pump $10.8 billion into the trust fund through May 2015.
The Transportation Department had warned that without congressional action, the trust fund’s reserves would be so low by Friday that it would have to slow payments to states, meaning that many bridge and road constructions across the country would screech to a halt.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said that without the extension, up to 70 transportation projects in his state, including the widening of two interstates and the repair of several crumbling bridges, would’ve been shut down.
“While this temporary solution is not a cure-all for the Highway Trust Fund, I believe the strong bipartisan support shown this week is a sign that Congress can once again put in place a long-term, responsible solution in the coming year,” he said.
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. But revenue from the taxes have declined in recent years because of increased vehicle fuel efficiency and because Americans are driving less.
Compounding the problem are increased highway construction costs and a gas-tax rate that has remained the same since the Clinton administration.
So instead of raising the gas tax — a politically dangerous move in an election year — the bill calls for a hodgepodge of funding sources such as pension tax changes, customs fees and money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks to keep the trust fund solvent.
The Senate earlier this week passed its own version of the bill that featured different funding sources and expired in December — a move designed to buy Congress time to come up with a long-term bill before the end of the year.
But House Republicans were determined to see their bill win and resent the Senate the initial House version earlier Thursday. With the Friday deadline looming, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reluctantly accepted the lower chamber's bill.
“It’s really sad because what we wanted to do was to take care of this problem this year, in this Congress, on our watch, not kick the can down the road,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., referring to the Senate's failed approach.
Boxer added the funding sources including in the House Republican bill are nothing more than “smoke and mirrors.”
Still, Boxer voted for the House version because “we can’t walk away from the Highway Trust Fund.”
Because lawmakers haven’t been able to find a politically acceptable, long-term funding plan, they have kept the trust fund afloat in recent years through a series of temporary fixes.
But critics such as transportation and construction groups say that’s no way for Congress to deal with the nation’s aging transportation infrastructure. As a solution, some groups, including the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, have called for Congress to increase the gas tax for the first time in 21 years.
“Congress should consider all viable options for funding our nation’s infrastructure," said the group's executive director and chief executive, Patrick D. Jones.
Five-year highway bills once cruised through Congress without much controversy. But like most matters on Capitol Hill in recent years, the trust fund has been a casualty of partisan wrangling.
Congress last passed a highway bill in June 2012 after a protracted partisan fight. The sticking point then was a House Republican push to include a provision for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which they said would create thousands of jobs and foster greater domestic energy independence.
The bill finally cleared Congress after Republicans gave up their Keystone demand.