By David Bauer, senior vice president of government relations, ARTBA

The House of Representatives May 19 overwhelmingly approved  legislation (H.R. 2353) that is likely to become the 33rd short-term authorization of the federal highway and public transportation programs since 2009. The vote was 387 to 35 with one member voting present.

The measure would extend current policy and—more importantly—the authority for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to spend funds out of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF).  Without either an extension or long-term authorization bill, the U.S. DOT would not be able to reimburse states for federal-aid surface transportation projects beyond May 31 when the current short-term extension expires.  The House and Senate will leave town later this week for the Memorial Day Holiday and will not return until after June 1—making action on H.R. 2353 a “must do” item for the Senate in the coming days.

If enacted (as is heavily expected), the two-month extension sets another deadline for Congress later this summer.  Congress will now be required to deal with both the new lapse in HTF spending authority and the trust fund’s sixth revenue crisis in the last eight years before its month-long recess begins at the end of July.  The U.S. DOT claims it will need to begin slowing down reimbursements for federal-aid highway projects during August to preserve a positive HTF balance—as required by law.

While virtually all members of Congress that spoke on the House floor characterized their support for H.R. 2353 as reluctant, a clear discord between House Republicans and Democrats has emerged regarding what should happen in the next 60 days.  House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have characterized the two month measure as a mechanism that will provide the time necessary to come up with the $11 billion the HTF requires to continue operations through the end of the calendar year.  Shuster and Ryan say a two-month extension will lead to a five month extension that allows Congress the time it needs to develop a long-term HTF revenue plan.

By contrast, House Democrats—led by Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and T&I Committee Ranking Democrat Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.)—vigorously argued during today’s debate for Congress to use the next two months to fund and pass a six-year highway/transit program reauthorization bill.  A number of Democrats pointed out Congress has had 10 months since the last trust fund patch/extension to find a long-term HTF solution.

It is unclear at this time how the different time horizons of House Republicans and Democrats for long-term HTF actions will impact work over the next two months.  While H.R. 2353 is not anticipated to be controversial in the Senate, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has been clear that he has the same perspective as Chairmen Shuster and Ryan.  It remains to be seen how Senate Democrats will approach both the two-month extension and whatever comes next.

ARTBA and the ARTBA co-chaired Transportation Construction Coalition are continuing to urge Congress to move beyond short-term extensions and HTF patches and fix the HTF once and for all to end eight years of uncertainty about future federal highway/transit investments.