Road bill would hike spending by 25 percent, speed permits and add climate title

The bill would reauthorize funding for surface transportation programs, starting when current law lapses at end of September 2020

Senate Environment and Public Works chairman John Barrasso, in light of a new bill that aims to increase funding for repair of roads and bridges and that this can 'make the roads safer for every family driving on them. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Environment and Public Works chairman John Barrasso, in light of a new bill that aims to increase funding for repair of roads and bridges and that this can 'make the roads safer for every family driving on them. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 29, 2019 at 4:42pm

A bill that aims to increase funding by more than 25 percent for the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges, and expedite federal approvals of large infrastructure projects was released Monday by the Senate public works panel, which set a Tuesday markup for the legislation.

The still unnumbered bill by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would reauthorize funding for surface transportation programs for five years, starting when the current law lapses at the end of September 2020.

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The measure would authorize spending $287 billion from the Highway Trust Fund over the five years. That’s about 27 percent above current levels. The measure, which lawmakers describe as the largest U.S. transportation funding proposal, would also have to go through the Senate Finance Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“By modernizing our roads and bridges, we can make the roads safer for every family driving on them,” Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso said in a news release.

That bill will likely have an easier path to passage than a broader infrastructure package that lawmakers have sought but disagree on how to pay for.

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The legislation includes bipartisan bills already advanced by the committee aimed at reducing carbon emissions; reauthorization of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act program, which helps cut emissions from diesel-powered engines, and legislation the committee approved earlier this year to drive research into carbon capture, utilization and sequestration.

The bill also includes other climate-related provisions, such as authorizing $4.9 billion over five years for programs aimed at improving the resiliency of roads and bridges “from natural disasters such as wildfires, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, flooding, and mudslides,” according to a summary provided by the committee.

It would also set aside $1 billion for a competitive grant program to coax states and local authorities to build hydrogen, natural gas and electric vehicle fueling stations along certain highway corridors.

“This bipartisan legislation includes the first-ever climate title in a highway bill and would invest $10 billion in policies and innovative projects aimed at reducing emissions and enhancing resilience,” the panel’s ranking Democrat Thomas R. Carper said in a joint statement with Barrasso. “We’re just getting started, but I look forward to moving this bill out of committee this week and the work ahead of us to get it across the finish line.”

Faster permits

To speed decisions on major infrastructure projects, the measure, according to a section-by-section summary, would codify parts of the White House’s One Federal Decision, an executive order directing federal agencies involved in environmental reviews and other aspects of permitting to consolidate their timelines and issue a unified decision. That order was issued to avoid protracted timelines from multiple decisions across different agencies.

“The bill cuts Washington red tape, so road construction can get done faster, better, cheaper, and smarter,” Barrasso said.

Industry groups pushing for an increase in federal infrastructure spending, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Portland Cement Association, welcomed the bill as an important step toward timely reauthorization of funding for modernization of transportation systems.

At least one conservative think tank scolded the lawmakers for proposing increased funding levels in the bill as fiscally irresponsible at a time when the main funding source for roads and bridges is in financial trouble.

The Highway Trust Fund collects money mainly from fuel taxes to pay for roads and bridges. The fund however is in danger of insolvency as revenues from fuel taxes have fallen short of the cost of sustaining the nation’s roads and bridges.

Federal taxes of 18.3 cents a gallon on gasoline and 24.3 cents on diesel haven’t increased since 1993. Some industry groups have called for higher fuel taxes to shore up infrastructure funding. Decisions on whether to raise the motor fuels taxes would play out before the Finance Committee, whose chairman Charles E. Grassley will wait for action on the bill by other committees before considering it, his aide said in an emailed response.

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According to the Congressional Research Service, lawmakers have over the last decade transferred a total of $143.6 billion mostly from the Treasury’s general fund into the Highway Trust Fund.

“Given that Congress has already bailed out the Trust Fund to the tune of $140 billion over the last decade, this does not bode well for taxpayers or road users,” said Marc Scribner, transportation policy expert at the Libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute.