Highway bill upping spending by a quarter gets OK from Senate committee

The current five-year law funding surface transportation programs expires Sept. 30, 2020.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said. “The bill will speed up project delivery will cut Washington red tape, so projects can get done faster, better, cheaper and smarter.” (File photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 21-0 Tuesday to advance a $287 billion bill that would fund the repair and maintenance of  roads and bridges over five years, expedite permitting processes for major infrastructure projects and make transportation systems more resilient to climate change effects.

The bill, which would increase spending by 27 percent over the current authorization, has the support of President Donald Trump, although he has walked away from broader infrastructure talks.

[Road bill would hike spending by 25 percent, speed permits and add climate title]

In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump said the bill will have a “big impact on our highways and roads all across” the nation and lauded the bipartisan action.

The current five-year law funding surface transportation programs expires Sept. 30, 2020 and lawmakers both in the House and the Senate have signaled they want a timely reauthorization.

“Between new authorizations, loan leveraging programs, state-match requirements and likely additions from the Commerce and Banking committees, our bill’s total impact on infrastructure will be nearly half a trillion dollars, which is a historic total,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo.,  said. “The bill will speed up project delivery will cut Washington red tape, so projects can get done faster, better, cheaper and smarter.”

The bill is co-sponsored by ranking member Thomas R-Carper, D-Del., Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.

Although the markup was completed with little fanfare, two lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with a section of the bill that would direct $1 billion towards the construction of charging and refilling stations for electric, natural gas and hydrogen-powered vehicles. They want that money also extended to biofuels such as corn-based ethanol and biodiesel from soy.

“I don't have any issue with these fuels or technologies, but what I do have an issue with is the fact that this section neglects to include the biofuels,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa said.

The lawmaker, whose agriculture state has been boosted by federal policy mandating a mix of biofuels in the country’s motor fuels, said that if they are not later included, she’d rather eliminate the entire section of the bill.

Backing biofuels

“We're going to have the federal government subsidize charging infrastructure for electric vehicles which are owned in large part by high earners in coastal states, while at the same time leaving our corn and soybean farmers and biofuel producers on the sidelines,” Ernst said. “I'm not pushing for a vote on my amendment today but I do plan to work with my colleagues to iron this out before the bill hits the floor.”

While the bill would help boost funding for charging stations for alternative fuel vehicles, Barrasso said he would like to see users of electric vehicles pay into the Highway Trust Fund, which depends largely on taxes levied on gasoline and diesel to pay for road and bridge maintenance and repair.

Carper also supports a fee on plug-in vehicle users, telling reporters after the vote that such motorists “have a responsibility” to pay for the roads they use.

The Environment and Public Works Committee doesn't have authority to write legislation charging a fee on electric vehicle users, but the issue will likely come up when the bill goes before the Senate Finance Committee, which will be looking for ways to raise revenues to pay for the prescriptions in the bill.

“One way to help pay for it is to ensure every driver using the roads is contributing,” Barrasso said. “An electric car puts as much wear and tear on the roads as any other vehicle.”

The panel also voted by voice to move legislation (S 1992) that would the repeal a section of the current surface transportation law that would rescind $7.6 billion in federal-aid Highway Program contract authority. That recision would take effect on July 1, 2020 unless repealed by Congress.

“The last five-year reauthorization bill, the FAST Act, was largely paid for by a series of largely irresponsible budget gimmicks,” Carper said. “I hope that we'll be able to pass this important fix before we started the next fiscal year and remove the cloud of uncertainty shrouding states as they try to plan projects for coming year.”

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