DALLAS -- Congress is on the road to another short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund to keep infrastructure projects going this summer as lawmakers struggle over how to pay for a multiyear transportation bill, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said at an industry forum on Thursday.
Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, said he is hopeful a long-term bill can get through Congress before the current 10-month, $11 billion HTF patch expires on May 31, but that lack of a funding consensus makes quick passage of a multiyear plan almost impossible.
A short patch will be needed to keep the HTF solvent and reimbursements for infrastructure projects flowing to states until a funding mechanism can be agreed upon, Shuster said.
“We’ll have something that gets us through the construction season,” Shuster said at the forum sponsored by the National Journal.
The Transportation Department said it will have to reduce reimbursements to states for road and transit infrastructure projects as early as June if the HTF’s solvency is not extended past May. The HTF currently has a revenue shortfall of at least $13 billion a year between revenue the gasoline tax brings in and expenditures from the fund.
If Congress adopts another quick fix for the HTF, it would be the 33rd short-term extension of federal highway funding in the past six years.
The revenue problem will be resolved eventually and a multiyear highway bill will be approved, Shuster said.
“I feel confident that we will get a long-term bill and find a way to fund it,” he said.
Pete Ruane, president and chief executive officer of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association who was on a later forum panel, was a lone voice in expecting Congress to approve a long-term transportation funding bill before the end of 2015. Congress “will not solve it by May, but they may resolve it by the end of the year,” Ruane said.
Fitch Ratings on Thursday endorsed ARBTA’s proposal to link a 15 cent per gallon increase in the federal gas tax with an income tax rebate as a “pragmatic, much-needed source” of transportation funding.
“The gas tax is the fastest and most reliable method to provide desperately needed resources to states for road and rail infrastructure projects,” Fitch said. “A solution is imperative.”
Shuster, a persistent critic of proposals to increase the federal gasoline tax, which is now at 18.4 cents per gallon, rejected the idea again during a press briefing on Wednesday.
One-time revenues generated by amending the tax rate on corporate foreign earnings, known as repatriation, may be the answer to funding the next transportation bill, he told reporters.
“I think pretty much everybody in this town has come to the conclusion that repatriation is where the dollars are,” Shuster said. “There’s no willingness, there’s no will in this Congress or in the administration to do anything with adjusting user fees or taxes.”
The decision whether to pass a short-term extension or strive for a multiyear bill before the current patch expires has to be made soon after Congress returns in early April from its Easter recess, he said.
"I'm focused on getting something done before May 31, but if we have to do [a short-term extension] then we'll have to address that,” he said. “Every day that goes by, it gets more and more difficult to hit that deadline.”
Shuster said he is not yet prepared to give up on getting a long-term bill through Congress before the end of May.
"We still have two months," he said. "I'm going to keep pushing until it comes time that we have to do something."
President Obama’s proposed six-year $478 billion transportation plan would be funded with $238 billion from a 14% transition tax on foreign corporate earnings and $240 billion of gasoline and diesel tax revenues.