WASHINGTON—The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) has introduced a six-year bipartisan transportation funding reauthorization bill, just days after the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees held hearings on the issue.
The committee announced the bill June 23 and held a business meeting on it the following day. The bill is S. 1647, the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act.
“The DRIVE Act will provide states and local communities with the certainty they deserve to plan and construct infrastructure projects efficiently,” said EPW Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., in a press release announcing the bill's introduction.
According to a summary on the EPW website, the DRIVE Act will reauthorize the federal highway program at an increased funding level for fiscal years 2016 through 2021, though the committee did not provide a dollar estimate.
The bill preserves the existing highway program structure, including the National Highway Performance Program, the Highway Safety Improvement Program, the Surface Transportation Program and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.
Among other things, the DRIVE Act would also:
• Establish a formula-based freight program, providing funds to all states to improve the movement of goods;
• Establish a competitive grant program to fund highway projects of high importance;
• Improve transparency as to how and where Highway Trust Fund dollars are spent;
• Update and improve the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to help state and local governments fund transportation projects; and
• Provide new flexibility for funding small projects, including rural road and bridge projects.
Early reactions to the DRIVE Act were mixed.
“The six-year bipartisan bill put forth by the (EPW) Committee represents light-years of progress over the more than 30 destructive short-term patches Congress has been able to muster in the last decade,” said Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA).
However, Lisa Mullings, president and CEO of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, objected to a provision in the DRIVE Act that would make it easier for states to place tolls on existing interstate highways and divert toll revenue to non-highway projects.
“Tolls divert highway traffic off of the interstates and onto secondary roads, which can create unsafe driving conditions in our communities,” Mullings said. “Furthermore, tolls are an inefficient double tax on interstate travelers.”
The Tire Industry Association has not issued a specific comment on the DRIVE Act. However, TIA opposes new highway tolls, as well as many other suggested highway funding mechanisms including reinstatement of former federal excise taxes on tires or increases on existing ones.
In testimony submitted to House Ways and Means June 17 and Senate Finance June 18, TIA made its position plain, according to Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president.
“While we support a long-term bill, we are opposed to many proposals being circulated,” Littlefield said in the June 22 issue of TIA's Weekly Legislative Update.
Asked about the EPW transportation bill, Littlefield said he found it very encouraging.
“We like that there's no tire registration proposal in it,” he said. A provision in the Obama administration's reauthorization package, which would pave the way for a return to mandatory registration and severe penalties for noncompliant tire dealers, is a particular sore point with TIA.
“We're happy that it's a six-year bill, and we're happy that it's bipartisan,” Littlefield said. “But we also see that the funding mechanisms aren't in place. It's a great step forward, but there's still a long way to go.”
TIA favors the proposal of Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., to create a $50 billion federal transportation fund. That fund would be bankrolled from bonds purchased by U.S. corporations seeking a tax break on money earned abroad and brought back to the U.S.
TIA also wants to see an end to diversion of money intended for the Highway Trust Fund. “We are approaching 30 percent of the funds collected for the Highway Trust Fund diverted for non-highway purposes,” Littlefield said.
Congress has until July 31 to pass a transportation funding bill. On June 24, the National Governors Association wrote the congressional leadership urging them to act quickly to pass long-term reauthorization.
“Strengthening our nation's infrastructure is vital for governors to advance economic growth and global competitiveness, create jobs and improve overall quality of life,” the NGA said.
“Federal Highway Trust Fund reimbursements to state cover the federal share of contracted work already completed,” it said. “Delaying congressional action on a long-term reauthorization and allowing the HTF to become exhausted will not change the fact that states must pay those bills.”