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Government Passes New Transportation Highway Bill

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan committee in the U.S. Senate has unveiled a new six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill that includes more than a quarter-trillion dollars in infrastructure investment and designated funding for freight corridors.

Shippers and transportation providers tired of uncertain highway funding and the congestion is ultimately causes would be wise to hold back on their applause, as the bill doesn’t outline how it will bankroll the spending.  That’s going to be up to the Senate’s commerce and banking panels.

Leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee introduced the measure, known as the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy or DRIVE Act, Tuesday. The latest measure calls for appropriating nearly $43 billion each year to the trust fund that maintains America’s roads and bridges, which has faced chronic shortfalls and required nearly 30 short-term extensions since 2009.

After Congress approved another short-term extension last month, the fund is now set to expire July 31.

The legislation now up for consideration would introduce a new grant system for projects of strategic or national significance, as well as place a new priority on the nation’s off-system bridges.

For many in the transportation sector, the bill also provides for a long overdue formula-based program for funding the nation’s freight corridors — something shippers and transportation providers have been pushing for years.

The bill includes a minimum annual investment of $2 billion in dedicated funding for freight infrastructure, as well as state-level freight planning for both public and private sector involvement. It also calls for the inclusion of all National Highway System freight intermodal connectors on the Primary Highway Freight Network.

“This bipartisan bill,” EPW Chairman and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement, “contains the hallmark accomplishment of a new freight program to prioritize federal spending on the facilities that will most directly benefit our economy, in addition to prioritizing federal dollars towards bridge safety and the interstate system.”

The DRIVE Act would provide roughly $260-270 billion over the next six years for highway projects across the U.S. That remains only rough a approximation, however, as the bill does not address funding, which is within the purview of the Senate Finance Committee and other commerce and banking panels.

The bill’s sponsors recognized their work was far from finished.

“In order to make the DRIVE Act a reality, we must provide full funding so that city, state and local governments have the certainty they need to make the investments we’ve outlined in this bill,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who helped sponsor the bill, said in a statement.

The DRIVE Act, however, remains an important first step, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., another one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

“The clock is ticking, and action in the EPW Committee is a major first step — the other committees also need to act,” Boxer said.

The next step? Finding some means of bankrolling the bill’s projects and programs.

Completing that step, however, has historically been a challenge for Congress.

For years, lawmakers have been wrestling with how to support the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund. The fuel tax on gasoline and diesel continues to be the primary contributor to the fund. Fuel taxes, however, haven’t been raised since 1993 and Americans’ recent proclivity for driving fewer miles and operating more fuel-efficient cars has only contributed to the shortfall.

Today, the federal government typically spends about $50 billion each year on transportation projects, while the gas tax annually nets only $34 billion to cover those costs.

Neither Congress nor President Obama have endorsed raising the fuel tax.

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