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Deadline to authorise highway funding nears

After six years of 32 short-term extension measures, US DOT head Anthony Foxx appeals to Congress to enact a long-term surface transportation funding bill.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure met yesterday for the first time this year to discuss reauthorising long-term surface transport funding legislation, with US Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx as the sole witness.

The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in July 2012, was the first long-term transport funding bill to survive the legislative process since 2005, and authorised $105 billion through 2014. The last of the legislative patches to have extended MAP-21's lifespan will expire on May 31.

The prospect of MAP-21 expiry has some states thinking twice about initiating highway projects this year, Foxx said, noting that Tennessee cancelled $400 million worth of projects, and that Arkansas has delayed three projects of its own – adding to the 15 postponed in the state last year – due to federal funding uncertainty.

The federal gasoline tax, currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 cents per gallon of diesel), was originally introduced in 1932 as a means to pay for development and maintenance of America's highway system, but currently that tax isn't even covering the costs of maintenance, Foxx said.

In answer to this deficit, he announced plans to introduce a “new and improved” Grow America Act in the coming weeks that provides six years of transportation funding to the tune of $478 billion.

“It sounds like enough to choke a horse as we say in North Carolina, but against what we need it's not such a big number – and keep in mind others are calling for much larger numbers than what we are,” Foxx said.

Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio said he believes a $478 billion boost is reasonable.

“If the gas tax had been indexed, that's about where we would be. It's kind of the path that we should have been on all along,” he said.

The new Grow America Act, which follows on the original act introduced last year, would include spending increases of 6.9 percent per year until 2021, and would be augmented by a one-time 14 percent tax on all foreign earnings by companies headquartered in the US.

After nearly two hours of sitting in on the hearing, Alaska Representative Don Young was ready for less talk and more action, likening himself and his colleagues to a pack of dogs circling a skunk.

“It's important for us to recognise as a committee […] that we have to fund this program. If we do not do that, all these hearings are good, we'll write something, but we won't accomplish that task,” Young said. “Kill the skunk, let's fund this program.”

Despite several such enthusiastic and jocular exchanges, none of the representatives present expressed optimism about the chances of reauthorising a long-term transport funding bill by May 31, when the latest of 32 short-term measures to extend funding is set to expire.

Should Congress fail to meet the deadline, Foxx said his agency will begin notifying states of cash management measures as early as June.