Rushing to beat a Dec. 4 deadline, House and Senate negotiators struck an agreement on a $305 billion highway bill that would extend federal transportation funding for five years.
The 1,300-page bill is paid for with gas tax revenue and a package of $70 billion in offsets from other areas of the federal budget.
The legislation would provide $281 billion in contracting authority over five years for the Highway Trust Fund for roads, bridges, mass transit and other programs. It also includes more than $12.2 billion tied to capital investment grants, $10.36 billion for rail-related projects, $980 million for National Highway Traffic Safety Administration vehicle safety provisions and hundreds of millions of dollars for other projects or agencies, including emergency preparedness.
Lawmakers expressed confidence that the package will win approval in both chambers in time to beat the rapidly approaching deadline.
Transportation advocates praised Congress for moving to end a string of temporary road funding patches.
Dubbed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act, the bill formally reauthorizes the collection of the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax that is typically used to pay for transportation projects, and also includes $70 billion in “pay-fors” to close a $16 billion deficit in annual transportation funding that has developed as U.S. cars have become more fuel-efficient.
The gas tax has been the traditional source for transportation funding since its inception in the 1930s, but lawmakers have resisted increasing the amount that drivers pay. The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects; the gas tax only brings in $34 billion annually.
Additional mechanisms include contracting out some tax collection services to private companies, over the objection of unions that represent federal IRS workers, and tapping dividends from the Federal Reserve Bank.
Conservatives groups panned the reliance on transfers from other areas of the federal budget to finance the highway bill.“This deal enables more deficit spending out of the Highway Trust Fund without any real reform,” Heritage Foundation transportation policy expert Michael Sargent said in a statement, pointing out that the deal increases the federal government's annual spending on highway and transit programs.
Lawmakers who worked on the highway bill defended the compromise as an important step forward in an area of badly divided government.
“This legislation is a vital investment in our country. A safe, efficient surface transportation network is fundamentally necessary to our quality of life and our economy, and this conference report provides long-term certainty for states and local governments, and good reforms and improvements to the programs that sustain our roads, bridges, transit, and passenger rail system," Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Reps. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said in a joint statement.
"We knew that reaching an agreement on this measure would be challenging, but every member of the conference committee was certainly up to the task," they said.