House comes up with 6-year, $325 billion transportation bill, with a catch

The House on Friday proposed to spend $325 billion on transportation over the next six years, launching a plan that made practical sense but came with an enormous caveat.

The problem, as always on Capitol Hill, is finding the money.

The bill from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure spells out how money should be spent over the next six years, but it’s up to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to come up with the cash.

But even as they briefed reporters Friday, the staff members who pulled the bill together threw a new twist into the congressional lexicon.

They acknowledged that they were anticipating that Ryan could find only half of the necessary funding — call it $162 billion — and said they hoped the balance of the cash needed for the final three years of the bill could be “unlocked” somewhere down the line.

When pressed, they agreed that unlocked was a synonym for found.

The rationale for pushing a six-year bill when they expected to be able to pay for only three years of it was twofold. If, or when, the funds materialized to continue transportation funding for the full six years, there would be no need to pass a new authorization bill. And, they said, the state officials who depend on federal cash as they plan multi-year projects would find a six-year bill more reassuring than a three-year bill.

The proposal would hold transportation funding near current levels, plus inflation. It would provide greater emphasis on freight movement, and instruct the Department of Transportation to create a one-stop office for state and local governments applying for grants, an office that sounds similar to one created by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

It would maintain the current ratio between highway spending and funding for transit, with 80 percent going to roads and 20 percent designated for local bus and rail systems.

The legislation delivers on Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s (R-Pa.) promise to produce a long-term bill before current funding expires Oct. 29. But even if the House leadership team was not in complete disarray, the odds that something so complex could win approval in less than two weeks are next to nil.

“Just being realistic, I think we’ll have to do another extension,” said a senior Republican staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about the bill with reporters.

That means that for the 35th time in recent years, Congress will extend an existing funding authorization for a still undetermined number of months, a practice that has frustrated state officials who want to plan projects that will take several years to finish.

Since the federal gas tax has not kept up with spending for years, and there are not enough votes on Capitol Hill to increase it, the plan apparently is to drain the Highway Trust Fund into which gas tax revenue flows.

As recently as a few months ago, Ryan suggested a multi-year transportation bill could be paid for with a big overhaul of corporate taxes. Now, however, he appears to have taken that prospect off the table.

The Senate, meanwhile, has passed a six-year highway bill but has come up with only three years of funding for it. Some in the House and outside experts scoff at the maneuvers the Senate came up with to find money for those first three years, including savings that are to be realized over a 10-year period.

“We are very pleased that the House is moving forward with a long-term, bipartisan bill,” Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a joint statement. “We look forward to getting to conference and resolving the differences in the two bills.”