House Committee Passes Surface Transportation Bill, Settles for “No Growth”

Full House to Take Up Bill Within Next Two Weeks

The House Committee on Transportation approved, by a voice vote, a surface transportation bill extending highway and transit funding at current levels for six years. Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) told reporters he believes a bill could come to floor of the full House “possibly next week or after.”

While the bill did receive some bipartisan support, many pro-infrastructure Members of Congress were clearly disappointed by the numbers, which freeze in place current funding levels (with a small boost to offset inflation). It was a case of damning with faint praise, as committee members pointed to the fact that this was the first surface transportation bill in over a decade that provided six years of predictability. This is certainly an improvement from the perspective of states, which have been struggling to plan infrastructure investments around 34 short-term transportation extensions passed by Congress. Members from both sides of the aisle blamed the failing Highway Trust Fund—the victim of Americans choosing to drive less combined with more fuel-efficient cars—saying it couldn’t even support existing levels of investment; the trust fund will need an additional infusion of general fund subsidies in the summer.

Passengers Rally for Growth

Hundreds of NARP Members reached out to their representatives and asked for additional investment in transit, part of NARP’s campaign for A Connected America. Against difficult odds, that effort paid dividends when Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) offered an amendment to increase funding by $118 billion, matching levels seen in the Obama Administration’s transportation fund (Rep. Garamendi also submitted an amendment to pay for the increased investment through corporate tax reform, which was rejected by Chairman Shuster for violating parliamentary rules).

Unfortunately, that amendment was voted down by a vote of 42 – 11. Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) did applaud Rep. Garamendi’s intentions, and informed his colleague that he had successfully included a provision that would respond to new revenue sources by increasing transportation investment within the bill’s existing structure. He then pledged to keep working to secure additional funds—pointing to proposals such as corporate tax reform, an export tax for domestically produced oil shipped to foreign markets, and a per-barrel tax on oil producers.

In a silver lining for passengers, Chairman Shuster did indicate that a three-year extension of the Positive Train Control deadline will come to the House floor next week as a standalone bill. That should provide some measure of comfort to both freight and passenger rail customers, who are starting to receive notices from railroads that unless Congress acts to extend the deadline, rail service will be discontinued on January 1 (or even sooner for chemical shippers).

The current surface transportation law expires October 31. Given the tight timeline, Congress will need to pass a short term extension to allow the House to pass it’s proposal and reconcile it with the—much better for passengers—Senate DRIVE Act.