Contrary to my April editorial, which was written in late March, the Senate is not sitting around doing nothing in regards to a new multiyear highway bill. However, it might just be a step above doing next to nothing.
OK, maybe I should not be so harsh, but Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works, left a lot of blanks to fill in following an announcement on April 10 that they had reached a bipartisan agreement on a six-year highway bill that funds the core highway programs. What exactly that means, I have no idea. However, Boxer and others claim they will have a plan ready to hand over to the Senate Finance Committee by the end of April.
Good news, if we only depended on one branch of government. I still have not heard anything in terms of progress on the House side, and as you know it is going to take both chambers to move anything through.
If I had to guess, here are some of the elements that will be included in the new Senate bill:
* Boxer said this agreement is a fiscally responsible one, so I would hope that means the current funding levels will be maintained over the next six years. We all know those levels need to be on the upswing, but with no mileage-based user fees in place, and no chance at a gas-tax increase, there is just no way there is going to be a bump in annual funding;
* Programs like TIFIA and TIGER grants will again serve as core elements. I would hope both would get an increase in funding, but see note above;
* There is going to be an increased push for public-private partnerships. Again, not an answer to all of the funding problems, but there is some promise in this area; and
* States may be able to toll more interstates. I am assuming the tolls would be reserved for new capacity, like the installation of HOT or HOV lanes.
That’s a pretty conservative list. If lawmakers are still dead-set against raising the federal gas tax and pulling more money over from the general fund, then the wildcard in all of this will be how they plan on fixing the increased weakness experienced by the Highway Trust Fund. But Boxer and her Senate colleagues have made it clear that they have no clue as to how to fund this six-year jubilee. It’s progress, though, right? I mean, at least we know there is a pulse in Washington. Doesn’t that amount to something? Or in the end, with no clear funding formula outlined, will it be just a whole bunch of nothing?