Bipartisan Senate transportation plan unveiled

Funding level would remain steady, states would get flexibility

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WASHINGTON — The next step in addressing a national transportation funding crisis came Monday night in a Senate proposal that would continue current spending levels for six years and give state and local governments more autonomy in how they spend federal dollars.

The long-awaited bipartisan bill, which was released without comment by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and David Vitter, R-La., would be pegged at around the current level of $52 billion a year, with an allowance for inflation.

“It’s not earth shattering, it’s pragmatic,” said Robert Puentes, a transportation and infrastructure expert at the Brookings Institution.

Taken as a sign of movement in an election year that has slowed Congress to a snail’s pace, the bill was reassuring to state and local transportation officials who feared their federal funds might be delayed or reduced by midsummer.

The Senate bill brings to three the number of transportation spending plans under discussion. But based on Boxer’s track record of success, it became the front-runner against bills from the House and the Obama administration. Boxer was seen as the force behind the current plan that won approval in 2012.

After weeks of toil by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the Boxer bill landed in the middle of what advocacy groups have dubbed “infrastructure week,” a concerted effort to draw public and Capitol Hill attention to declining national systems said to need $3.6 trillion in restoration by 2020.

The Senate bill, which lays out a plan for spending but doesn’t specify where the money will come from, was being digested in advance of a committee hearing set for Thursday.

“While we begin the process of reviewing the specifics of the bill, we look forward to working with Senators Boxer and Vitter and the rest of the committee,” said Bud Wright, with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “The nature of the projects and programs that state departments of transportation oversee require a long-term view in order to ensure the best investment of federal, state and local tax dollars.”

“Although we are still analyzing the bill, we hope the Senate’s proposal will be another step forward in the race to reauthorize the critical funding needed to support the nation’s transportation system,” said Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities.

The traditional source of funding for roads and transit projects, the Highway Trust Fund, relies on the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, which was last raised in 1993. The tax has not been adjusted for inflation, and the fund has eroded steadily as vehicles have become more energy efficient.

The Senate bill would provide federal support for state and local governments by continuing a popular loan guarantee program, allowing greater flexibility to streamline project delivery and create a new program to reward them for expediting projects completed under budget.

A quartet of influential advocates agreed Monday that a gas tax hike was the most feasible quick-fix option to avoid a scenario where states are forced to suspend summer-season construction projects for lack of federal dollars.

“Over a dozen states in recent weeks have publicly stated that the uncertainty with the Highway Trust Fund has caused them to delay, stall or reconsider major projects,” said Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, in endorsing a higher gas tax. “Over the next several weeks, we’ll be turning up the heat on Congress.”

It has been estimated that the federal gas tax would have to be raised to 31 cents per gallon to revive the flagging trust fund.