Blunt: Senate failing on highway funding bill

Crane operators with Columbia-based Schultz Excavating & Crane Services lower themselves back to the ground after ensuring the last steel girder was placed properly as work progresses on the new Route D bridge over South Moreau Creek near Lohman on Wednesday. The bridge, a project of Don Schnieders Excavating of Jefferson City, is slated to be completed in August.

Crane operators with Columbia-based Schultz Excavating & Crane Services lower themselves back to the ground after ensuring the last steel girder was placed properly as work progresses on the new Route D bridge over South Moreau Creek near Lohman on Wednesday. The bridge, a project of Don Schnieders Excavating of Jefferson City, is slated to be completed in August. Photo by Kris Wilson.

Missouri transportation officials, and their counterparts in other states, are waiting for Congress to pass a new national highway funding bill.

“We need a long-term transportation solution,” U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt told Missouri reporters Wednesday morning. “The most optimistic long-term transportation solution is until March of next year.”

Last week, the House voted 367-55 to send the Senate a nearly $11 billion bill that many see as a stop-gap measure. It only would extend federal highway funding from Oct. 1 — the first day of the new federal government business year — through May 31, 2015.

The Washington Post reported the bill would transfer $9.9 billion from the federal government’s general fund and another $1 billion from a separate trust fund into the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run in the red starting next month.

But even that plan has critics because part of the general fund money would come through a process known as “pension smoothing,” which, the Wall Street Journal explained, “allows companies to temporarily reduce pension contributions. The tactic raises revenue for the government because companies lose out on tax deductions associated with pension contributions.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, told the Washington Post: “We shouldn’t be paying for filling potholes by creating potholes in Americans’ pensions.”

Since it was adopted in 1787, the U.S. Constitution has given Congress the power to, among other things, establish Post Offices and Post Roads — the roads over which the mail was carried, and what became the federal highway system.

Blunt acknowledged that his colleagues understand that duty.

“It’s not only in the Constitution, it is one of the very first elements of the government responding to that Constitution,” he said. “It’s one of the things the federal government’s almost always been involved in and encouraged.”

Blunt noted that at least since the mid-1950s, as the U.S. began building the interstate highway system, the federal gas tax that raises money to pay for the federal government’s share of highways around the nation has been seen as “a user-fee system that’s fair.”

But a recent Bloomberg News commentary, published last Friday in the News Tribune, reminded readers: “Over the past two decades, the gas tax has been frozen at 18.4 cents a gallon and eroded by inflation; cars have become more fuel-efficient, and their use has leveled off.

“As a result, the tax can no longer cover the government’s share — about 27 percent — of maintaining the country’s roads and bridges.”

Blunt said Congress needs to “have a real debate on a multi-year — hopefully, a five- or six-year — transportation bill, so that states and communities can get the best-price for a guaranteed result by whoever’s going to produce that product for you. And we’re not going to have that if you have even a two-year bill, let alone a two-month or maybe a five-month bill.”

Although some expect the Senate to act on the House-passed bill in the next few weeks — before the August recess — Blunt is among a group of lawmakers who think Congress needs to approve a more long-term solution before the new Congress starts in January,

“I’d like to see us get this done before we leave here this year,” Blunt said Wednesday. “I would prefer not to kick it into next year.”

Still, he said, the short-term proposal is “just another symptom of a government that’s not working — and a Senate that’s particularly not working,” Blunt said. “I think that we’re in the mode now where even the one thing that Harry Reid and Sen. (Mitch) McConnell seem to agree on is that we’re going to work until about the last week in September — and then go home and see what the voters think about the various Senate candidates that are out there.”

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