WITH HIGHLY CAUTIOUS AND DOUBTFUL OPTIMISM

Industry watchers were somewhat encouraged to learn that late last week the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposed a six-year $325 billion surface transportation bill. Designated as the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, it is a companion bill to the Senate legislation passed last summer.

Among other things, the bill focuses on an expansion of the National Highway Freight Network, increasing the total mileage from 27,000 to 41,000. (The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act of 2012 directed the “Secretary of Transportation to establish a national freight network to assist states in strategically directing resources toward improved system performance for efficient movement of freight on the highway portion of the Nation’s freight transportation system. This includes the National Highway System, freight intermodal connectors, and aerotropolis transportation systems.

The primary network will be comprised of not more than 27,000 centerline miles of existing roadways that are most critical to the movement of freight…………………”) 

The current house bill also revises the Surface Transportation Program into a block grant program which would give state and local governments more flexibility in using funds they receive. In other words, funds that should be designated for highways and bridges can be used for such things as truck parking facilities, recreational trails, and border infrastructure initiatives.

Another provision directs a closer look at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and its enforcement of the CSA (Compliance, Safety, and Accountability) program. This is a positive step. Established in 2010, enforcement of the program has been uneven at best.

Unfortunately, the bill maintains annual highway funding at about $50 billion, and does not address the deficit in the Highway Trust Fund. There still will be a shortfall of about $37 billion. In other words, the bill will go nowhere unless the House Ways and Means Committee comes up with a plan to cover the deficit. Since no one expects Congress to increase the gasoline tax, in spite of the logical reasons for doing so, the source of the necessary funds at this point, remains a mystery.

A few months ago, the Obama administration proposed a $480 billion, six-year plan, but it died in Congress. In spite of some of the bill’s shortcomings however, at least it contained a plan to generate the necessary revenue.

So as it stands now, current legislation expires on October 29, the six-year Senate bill contains funding for only the first three years, and the six-year House bill currently has no funding.

There is some cautious optimism that the House and Senate could get together and pass legislation by October 29, but this is highly doubtful. The somewhat encouraging news however, is that at least both chambers are discussing this critical issue.

Written By: Clifford F. Lynch