House passes long-term bill, to negotiate with Senate on first major bill
in a decade

The House overwhelmingly approved its version of a six-year reauthorization of highway and transit programs on Nov. 5, setting the stage for House-Senate negotiations that could see Congress soon pass the first long-term bill in 10 years.

A conference committee to work out differences between the House bill and one the Senate passed in July was expected to promptly begin work, after the House approved its version in a 363-64 vote.

Under the most recent short-term extension, Highway Trust Fund programs would expire Nov. 20 unless Congress passes a final bill or another extension before then.

Some senior lawmakers say they can complete the conference work by that date, making it possible to put a final bill before both chambers this month and send to the president for his signature. Even if it took longer to complete the work, however, House debate and votes reflected solid momentum for Congress to complete a final bill.

Both versions of the legislation would authorize highway and transit programs for six years, and both contain Senate-developed revenue provisions that are estimated to support those programs for at least three years.

That would make it the first legislation since 2005 to extend trust fund programs more than two years, even if Congress would still have to find a way to fund it past the first three.

But the House also approved an amendment that could shift another $40 billion to the Highway Trust Fund from a surplus capital account of the Federal Reserve System. That extra amount, along with other revenue provisions, would reportedly be enough to fund the entire bill for six years at House-prescribed levels, or five years at higher Senate levels.

The same amendment stripped out Senate-passed language to sharply reduce the dividend Fed pays member commercial banks on the money they deposit with the central bank. That provision had triggered a strong push by the banking industry to remove it from any final bill. But by tapping the Fed's capital surplus instead, the House provision may add much more funding for the transportation bill.

The Senate had also included in its version a four-year passenger rail section, while the House separately passed its rail bill last spring. So the final measure to come out of the House-Senate conference is expected to cover all three modes of surface transportation.

Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said that with House passage "the momentum is there" for Congress to soon complete the first long-term authorization in a decade.

Executives from state departments of transportation have repeatedly said long-term stability of federal program funding is crucial to the state DOTs being able to efficiently plan and finance infrastructure projects they need to build.

Now, said Wright, "we encourage both chambers to quickly proceed to conference negotiations," Wright said, "so a bill can be sent to the president prior to the Nov. 20 expiration" of current law.

Wright also highlighted the importance of a major infrastructure bill to the nation. "Congress has an opportunity to build muscle for the American economy by passing a multiyear bill that provides stable, long-term funding and sensible reforms designed to meet the vast needs of our aging highway, transit and rail systems."

Rep Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that wrote the House bill, said upon passage that "today the House voted to give our infrastructure and our economy a much needed shot in the arm."
He also said the bill "provides strong reforms and policies to help us improve America's transportation system." Shuster added: "Now we can get to work on resolving the differences with the Senate bill and carry a final measure over the goal line."

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the committee's ranking minority member, said the House vote came "after 10 years of short-term band-aids and extensions."

DeFazio also said the legislation "isn't perfect," and "doesn't provide the level of investment needed to repair or rebuild our aging 1950s-era system of roads, bridges, and public transit systems."

But he also said it contains "a critical provision that would allow for automatic adjustments and increased infrastructure investment if more money flows into the Highway Trust Fund than currently projected.  If Congress does the right thing and comes up with more revenue . . . this mechanism will invest those funds in our surface transportation infrastructure without any additional action by Congress."

Published 11-13-15