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Congress Acts to Keep Highway Trust Fund Solvent

Just before adjourning for August recess, Congress took action to keep the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent through May, 2015. On July 29, both chambers passed the House-drafted H.R. 5021, the Highway Trust Fund Reauthorization Act. The final bill would transfer about $10.8 billion to the trust fund to pay for surface transportation projects and programs. The bill uses a change to pension accounting rules known as pension smoothing to raise most of the money needed to offset the extension. Many senators from both parties said they were uncomfortable with pension smoothing, which they called a “gimmick” that had been overused to offset the cost of legislation.

“Though there are likely a number of senators who do not like this House bill, there doesn’t appear to be enough time for the Senate to go once again in a different direction as we all know we are on the verge of a crisis,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, (UT).

After several days of political wrangling between both chambers, Congress cleared the House measure, HR 5021, over the objections of Democrats, many of whom preferred a Senate alternative using slightly different offsets and limiting the duration of the stopgap to December 2014. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, (OR), said the Senate version would force Congress to tackle a longer-term bill sooner rather than later. A shorter stopgap measure would also provide greater opportunity for Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (CA) to move her proposed MAP-21 Reauthorization Bill, which would reauthorize surface transportation programs for six years and would continue programs important to landscape architects. The Boxer proposal would continue the Transportation Alternatives Program, Safe Routes to School, Recreational Trails Program, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program, and others. The May 2015 deadline would put off writing a new bill until the new Congress begins in 2015, which could have new leadership and new committee chairpersons with different transportation priorities and philosophies.

In a recent letter to transportation stakeholders, Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx also cited concerns about the May 2015 deadline stating “While I am pleased that Congress took action to avoid the immediate insolvency of the Highway Account this summer, I am disappointed that they merely kicked the can down the road again. Americans deserve a multi-year transportation bill that provides the certainty that businesses and communities deserve, creates jobs, and makes necessary policy updates to lay the foundation for lasting economic growth.”

The Senate passed H.R. 5021 by a vote of 81-13, with the House of Representatives clearing it by a vote of 272-150. The bill now moves on for President Barack Obama’s signature.

ASLA continues to work with policymakers on a new surface transportation bill that would include the Society’s transportation and infrastructure priorities, including TAP, Transportation Investment Generation Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, a federal Complete Streets policy, transit-oriented development programs, and others.

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