For the first time since Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010, a long-term bill to fund highways and transit was finally approved by Congress Friday. Since the GOP took control, infrastructure has been funded by a series of emergency, short-term funding bills.
The bill is titled Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act. It reauthorizes the collection of the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax that is typically used to pay for transportation projects. The House passed the $305 billion bill first and a few hours later, the Senate approved it and sent it to the president.
Obama is expected to quickly sign the measure, which has been a priority this year for his administration and Republican leaders in Congress. Obama has strongly objected to short-term transportation funding bills during his tenure in office, but he has been forced to sign dozens of patches to prevent interruptions in the nation’s road and transit funding, including recent measures that lasted only two and three weeks.
Short term extensions have only run up the cost of highway and rail projects since states were not able to do long term planning and take advantage of low costs during the recession and low and interest rates. Unfortunately, costs are going up do to the recovery and interest rates are likely to go up next week.
The 1,300-page bill, paid for with gas tax revenue and a package of $70 billion in offsets from other areas of the federal budget, is the first multiyear highway funding measure approved by lawmakers in a decade. It was approved by the Senate in an 83-16 tally, hours after sailing through the House on a 359-65 vote. The bill calls for spending approximately $205 billion on highways and $48 billion on transit projects over the next five years.
There were a few ornaments attached to the bill. It also reauthorizes the charter of the controversial Export-Import Bank until 2019. This helped get Democratic votes for the measure. That bill failed on its own earlier in the session. In addition, in order to get rural votes, $3 billion was added to subsidize crop insurance for farmers. Rates are going up due to the effects of climate change, which nearly every Republican denies is happening. Additional provisions include contracting out some tax collection services to private companies and tapping dividends from the Federal Reserve. These were added to appease the Freedom Caucus.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised lawmakers after passing the bill, suggesting senators have had to navigate around political and policy hurdles on the way to a long-term bill. “We all had just all kinds of tripwires on the path to getting what we thought was important to the country — which was a multiyear highway bill,” he said. “This has been one of the most exhilarating and satisfying experiences I’ve had in the time I’ve been in the Senate.”
Democratic Sens. Tom Carper (Del.) and Elizabeth Warren (MA) and 14 Republicans, including GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, voted against the legislation. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) slammed his colleagues who supported the highway bill, saying that “while the math may add up on paper,” the legislation includes “irresponsible and unsustainable funding mechanisms.”
Conservative groups opposed the reliance on transfers from other areas of the federal budget to finance the highway bill. “This deal enables more deficit spending out of the Highway Trust Fund without any real reform,” Heritage Foundation transportation policy expert Michael Sargent said in a statement, pointing out that the deal increases the federal government’s annual spending on highway and transit programs.
It was overwhelmingly passed in the House earlier in the day giving a major victory to Speaker Paul Ryan. John Boehner was never able to get Republicans to pass a long-term bill. They did not want to give a victory to Obama, now in his last year.
Passage of this bill will create thousands of high paying construction jobs. Had this bill been passed years ago, it would have reduced the misery of the unemployed and helped speed up the recovery. That is one reason, perhaps, that Republicans refused to pass it earlier.