The Obama administration sent Congress a $478 billion bill Monday that would provide the federal share of transportation funding for the next six years, the first legislation out of the gate in a year that is likely to produce a competition among three bills.
The White House bill is the least likely of the three to make it back to the president’s desk for his signature, and with the days dwindling to a May 31 deadline, so is the chance that any bill will be passed in time to provide state planners with stability at the onset of the highway construction season.
Given the complexity of approving a long-term transportation bill, the odds are that Congress will have to come up with cash to fund a short-term extension while it struggles for consensus on how to pay for a multi-year bill.
The administration bill rolled out Monday would bolster the gas-tax reliant Highway Trust Fund by imposing a 14 percent tax on an estimated $2 billion that U.S. corporations have stashed offshore to avoid higher corporate tax rates.
There is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for luring that money home with a one-time tax break, and Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) has proposed a more robust approach to repatriation that could provide transportation cash for far longer.
While both the House and Senate are working on their own transportation bills, neither seems likely to significantly boost federal spending beyond the current level of about $50 billion a year.
The administration’s bill would bump annual funding by almost $25 billion.
The biggest increase would come in transit funding, a 79 percent jump over current spending that would be invested in shoring up maintenance and improvements to existing systems and for expansion of light-rail, streetcar and rapid-bus systems.
Transit investment has been a hot potato in Congress, as members from areas that have minimal transit systems favor using the Highway Trust Fund primarily or solely for roads and bridges. A move to uncouple transit funding from the last surface transportation bill ran into a roadblock in the House from a bipartisan coalition of members who serve urban and suburban districts where transit is considered vital.
The White House bill also would increase highway funds by about 29 percent above current levels, with a policy emphasis on repairing deteriorating existing roads and bridges before investing in new construction. Some of the increased funding would go to federal regulators that police automotive, truck and bus safety.
In addition to the perpetual quest for streamlining the federal project approval process, Congress sought to transfer greater decision-making authority to state and local governments when it passed the current two-year transportation bill, Map-21, in 2012.
The White House is proposing more of that, with greater authority transferred to regional planners. The administration also wants to expand the competitive Tiger grants program, for which states and cities submit applications.
Both the shift to greater autonomy for state and local governments and the Tiger grant program generally have won bipartisan support from Congress and from the governments that have benefited from them.
The May 31 deadline that lawmakers face is of their own making. When Map-21 expired last year without any resolution of how to shore up the trust fund in the face of declining federal gas tax revenue, Congress came up with $10.8 billion from general tax revenue to extend the bill.
With two months remaining before the extension expires, there has been some support for increasing the gas tax and a groundswell for using repatriation.