WASHINGTON — Republicans plan to have the House vote Tuesday on a bill that would extend funding for the federal highway system until the middle of next year.
But Democrats say the bill simply delays a long-term solution for another year, while keeping federal funding levels flat, rather than addressing the nation's aging infrastructure needs through a long-term re-authorization bill.
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The debate comes just weeks before federal transportation programs are scheduled to run out of money.
"This week, the House will pass a short-term highway fix," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "If the president has a plan for a longer-term bill, the Democrat-controlled Senate ought to act on it, but until that happens, his speeches on this topic are nothing but background noise."
The White House issued a statement Monday saying President Obama supports passage of the bill as a way to "provide for continuity of funding for the Highway Trust Fund during the height of the summer construction season and keep Americans at work repairing the nation's crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems." But he remains committed to a long-term solution to highway funding.
A Republican congressional aide familiar with the legislation said Congress needs to do something to extend transportation programs that will otherwise expire at the end of September, affecting about 6,000 transportation projects. The aide, who did not want to speak publicly in advance of the congressional debate, said a long-term transportation bill is still a "top priority."
But Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said he opposes the House bill because it locks in the current spending level, which means no new project funding for next year, and a 30% decrease in spending over the next 10 years.
"An extended bailout getting the Highway Trust Fund into the middle of next year has profound consequences," Blumenauer said. "By sliding into next year, there is little or no focus on the consequences of the GOP budget and policy approach."
The bill also takes away his hope, he said, that there will be a six-year re-authorization of highway funding, which is important because it allows states to budget for the future.
"The House's plan to kick the can down the road and pass a temporary patch for the Highway Trust Fund until next May derails the effort to pass a long-term transportation bill this year," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. She added that the delay "causes a financial crisis right before the next construction season." Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue.
Obama has come out strongly in support of a long-term solution, with his administration releasing a report this week that shows that 65% of the country's roads are rated in "less than good" condition. One out of four bridges needs significant repair, and almost half the population (45%) lacks access to transportation.
He has proposed a $300 billion highway bill to be spent over four years, with half the money coming from a corporate tax overhaul to go with a gas-tax increase. However, Congress is not expected to tackle a tax overhaul this year, as lawmakers are unlikely to want to raise gas taxes during an election year. The House bill would extend the existing gas tax and add $10.5 billion in other funding.
Contributing: David Jackson
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