(Adds quotes, background)
By Eric Beech
WASHINGTON May 15 A U.S. Senate committee
passed a six-year transportation bill on Thursday that would
keep federal spending on highways and mass transit at current
levels but does not tackle the looming shortfall in the Highway
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted with
bipartisan support to advance the legislation, which would spend
about $53 billion a year and adjust for inflation, to the full
Senate. It is not clear when the Senate will consider the bill.
Other committees in the Senate and House of Representatives
are working on ways to pump money into the trust fund, which
pays for about 45 percent of what U.S. states spend on roads and
bridges and is forecast to run out of money by the end of
Senator David Vitter, the senior Republican on the
Environment and Public Works Committee, said it would be tough
to find a way to fund the legislation. "A bipartisan finance
solution is critical to the success of this bill," Vitter said.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned this week that
700,000 jobs could be lost if Congress lets the trust fund run
dry, which would hamper efforts to rebuild America's crumbling
The gas tax that supports the fund hasn't been raised since
1993 and covers only about $35 billion a year of the
approximately $53 billion in annual federal highway and mass
Since 2008, Congress has transferred about $54 billion from
general tax revenues to the fund, which was intended to be
self-sustaining. With Americans driving less and using more fuel
efficient vehicles, the fund hasn't kept pace with spending.
Groups ranging from the AFL-CIO labor federation and the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce have lobbied Congress to boost fuel
taxes, currently at 18.4 cents a gallon for gas and 24.4 cents
for diesel. But there is little appetite among lawmakers to
raise the tax in an election year.
Other ideas for plugging the funding hole also have not
gained traction on Capitol Hill, including a proposal from
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara
Boxer, a Democrat, to replace the gas tax with a levy on oil at
the wholesale level.
The Obama administration has proposed spending about $75
billion annually over the next four years, a significant boost
from the Senate bill. To pay for it, the administration would
complement the existing gas tax with money from ending some
business tax breaks.
Foxx this week criticized the Senate bill. "America has been
waiting on a bigger solution," he said.
The American Society of Civil Engineers also said the bill
fell short. "Regrettably, while the bill may reflect political
realities, it does not go far enough in addressing our country's
investment gap," ASCE said in a statement.
In its 2013 report card, ASCE said one in nine of the
country's bridges were structurally deficient and 42 percent of
its major urban highways were congested.
But the American Association of State Highway and
Transportation Officials welcomed the bill's six-year time
frame, saying it helped state officials plan long-term projects.
The current transportation bill, which is due to expire at
the end of September, was enacted just two years ago.
(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Susan Heavey)