Finally! Highway Funding Rolls Forward
“This has been one of the most exhilarating and satisfying experiences I’ve had in the time I’ve been in the Senate.” That’s how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) summed up the Congressional effort that has finally resulted in a $305 billion highway funding bill. Passed by the Senate December 4th shortly after passage in the House of Representatives, the bill went to the White House right away, where it was signed by President Obama.
“We had just all kinds of tripwires on the path to getting what we thought was important to the country,” noted Senator McConnell, speaking of the multiyear highway bill. Three current Presidential candidates voted against the legislation – Senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
There were tense moments late in the action in the Senate when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) forced a vote to remove an off-topic allocation in the bill which provides $3 billion for crop insurance. The vote failed, however, thanks to Senators such as James Inhofe (R-Okla.) who noted, “This issue is not whether or not, or how, you feel about crop insurance, it’s whether or not you want this bill.”
Senate approval of the funding package just squeaked under the wire, passing just one day before the latest “Band-Aid” funding was set to expire. President Obama has made reviving long-term federal transportation spending a top priority this year, as have Republican Congressional leaders. The new legislation passed 359-65 in the House and 83-16 in the Senate.
Five years of funding
Agreement about how to fund transportation infrastructure construction and repairs have been the primary sticking point as Congress has haggled over highway funding for more than ten years. The new legislation, called the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act, gathers money from multiple sources to provide five years of funding.
The 1300-page bill reauthorizes the existing 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax that has traditionally been used to fund transportation projects. However, this amount hasn’t been able to keep up with the need in recent years, in large part because American cars have become far more fuel-efficient. Lower fuel consumption is good for the environment but bad for tax collection. The current federal spending deficit is about $16 billion — $50 billion annual outlay versus $34 billion in gas tax revenue.
Unwilling to raise the gas tax, House and Senate members finally agreed on $70 billion in alternative money sources to arrive at the new legislation’s $305 billion five-year price tag. The FAST Act includes changes to customs fees, changes to passport rules for individuals whose taxes are delinquent, redirects some dividends from the Federal Reserve Bank and outsources some tax collection services normally handled internally by the IRS.
FMCSA takes immediate action
One provision of the FAST Act requires the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to remove from public view the BASIC carrier safety analysis and evaluation categories and scores associated with their Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) Safety Measurement System. The agency reportedly took this information off their website as soon as the President signed the new legislation.
Agency officials noted the FAST Act does not preclude them from displaying all data, but while they are reviewing changes, no information will be available for property carriers or provided to the public through FMCSA’s QCMobile app. And FMCSA has posed a question: “Is the removal of CSA scores a victory for trucking?” You can weigh in online or by calling FMSCA at 530.408.6423.
Within FAST Act funding, $205 billion will go toward highways and $48 billion will go toward transit projects. No word as yet on exactly how the money will be allocated or which, if any, New York highway or transit projects might benefit from the new funds.