The Economy: House votes to keep highway spending level

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WASHINGTON >> Despite years of warnings that the nation's roads, bridges and transit systems are falling apart and will bring nightmarish congestion, the House on Thursday passed a six-year transportation bill that maintains the spending status quo.

The bill, approved on a bipartisan vote of 363-64, authorizes $325 billion in spending through the 2021 federal budget year. But it provides money for only the first three years because lawmakers couldn't agree on a way to pay for it all. The measure would continue current rates of spending, adjusted for inflation.

At least $400 billion over six years is needed to prevent traffic congestion from getting worse, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said.

The bill is similar to a transportation bill passed by the Senate in July. Congressional leaders say they hope to quickly work out the differences between the two measures and send President Barack Obama a final bill before Thanksgiving. They also said they hope to find the money to pay for the last three years of the bill, but offered no details on how that might happen.

Major projects secure

Most lawmakers lauded the bill as a major accomplishment because it would assure states and localities that they can count on federal highway and transit aid for at least three years. It's hard to plan major construction projects when availability of federal aid is in doubt.

Since 2008, Congress has kept the federal Highway Trust Fund teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, unwilling to raise the federal 18.4 cents-a-gallon gasoline and 24.4-cent diesel taxes. The fuel taxes, the trust fund's main source of revenue, were last raised in 1993. Transportation aid has continued through dozens of short-term extensions and transfers of money from the general treasury to make up the gap between revenues and spending.

The House bill is filled with changes to transportation policy that reflect the small-government, pro-business philosophy of the chamber's GOP majority. But it is also a compromise that Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., spent months negotiating with Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the panel's top Democrat. As a result, the bill also includes many provisions sought by Democrats or supported by lawmakers from both parties, and avoids some of the most divisive proposals.

"Republicans, Democrats, Americans care about our infrastructure and want to get to work without delays, want to get products to market, and want to get the raw materials to the factories that keep us competitive in this world," Shuster said.

One change that gained wide support would direct $4.5 billion a year to interstate highways and other roads designated as freight corridors to increase capacity and relieve bottlenecks, and a grant program of more than $700 million a year for nationally significant highway and freight projects.

It was the first major bill on the House floor since Rep. Paul Ryan became speaker.


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