Highway Trust Fund reauthorization gets unanimous support from Senate panel

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A Senate bill authorizing $287 billion in federal surface transportation spending over five years that was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee needs a financing package before it can get a floor vote.

The Senate Finance Committee could choose to expand the scope of the bill through an expansion of transportation-related tax-exempt private activity bonds or the restoration of advance refunding.

“Municipal bond issuer groups have worked for some time to help expand the infrastructure conversation from transportation to include all public infrastructure - schools, fire stations, water systems,” Emily Brock, director of the federal liaison center for the Government Finance Officers Association, said in an email after the vote.

“The federal government’s return on investment for state/local infrastructure via advance refunding is a key point,” Brock said.

The Finance Committee’s biggest challenge will be making tough decisions on raising fuel taxes on traditional combustion engine vehicles and how to levy a fair share of fees on electric cars and other alternative fuel vehicles.

The five year measure approved 21-0 by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee reauthorizes the Highway Trust Fund and other surface transportation programs after Sept. 30, 2020.

The committee also unanimously voted Tuesday to reverse a planned $7.6 billion cut in highway spending that’s scheduled to take effect in a year.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the committee’s ranking Democrat, said he hopes for a Senate floor vote reversing the $7.6 billion cuts prior to the start of the 2020 fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Carper said this so-called recission “is causing tremendous uncertainty” for states and cities. “It needs fixing,” he said.

Reversing the $7.6 billion scheduled cut has been a high priority of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. AASHTO also is prodding Congress to complete an early reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce described the Senate committee’s action as “a great first step.”

A House bill has not yet been introduced.

The bipartisan Senate bill, S. 2302, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, directs just over 90% of the overall authorization, $259 million, to formula aid for state highway programs.

“Formula funding gives each state the flexibility to address its particular surface transportation needs,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “By distributing money through this formula, the legislation will help every state in the nation.”

The bill requires streamlining federal permits so they are completed within two years, establishing a $6 billion competitive grant program for repairing bridges and $1 billion in grants for refueling stations for electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.

Sen. Jodi Ernst, R-Iowa, expressed disappointment that the $1 billion for refueling stations doesn’t include biofuels such as ethanol and said she would work to change that before the bill passes the Senate.

The $6 billion fund for repairing bridges in poor condition would award grants on a competitive basis with at least 50% of the money targeted for large bridge projects costing $100 million or more.

In addition, $5.5 billion would be set aside for Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects under a program known as “INFRA.”

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