"Most of the pay-fors that we've come up with for the short-term extensions have been gimmicky things that have, you know, timing shifts, pension-smoothing," Thune told National Journal. "So we keep coming up with this stuff, and I'm like, 'At some point we have to confront this.' "
Short-term bills mean states have less certainty in their funding—and long-term projects can be stalled or canceled altogether. But they've also had a hidden impact, leaving policy reforms half-baked when it's time to consider them again.
For example, MAP-21 required the Transportation Department to conduct a comprehensive study of the safety and efficiency implications of new sizes and configurations of trucks, including those above federal length and weight limits. Those findings would lay the groundwork for updated regulations that could allow bigger trucks on the road, which trucking companies have said could make shipping cheaper and easier.
But that study, due in November, isn't done—the Federal Highway Administration says it is still evaluating the results and drafting technical documents.
Likewise, a provision related to the bolts for trucks is still under review, and two provisions regarding the hours of service for truck operators were suspended until the end of September, pending more study by the Transportation Department. Reforms from other committees related to transparency in highway spending also haven't been implemented in full.
Now a new bill is coming due while those reforms are still up in the air, and aides and stakeholders say it could be less robust than hoped.
"When you've got these eclectic, short-term bills, the safety stuff really suffers," said Bradley Sant, senior vice president of safety and education for the American Road and Transit Builders Association. "There's nothing that gives us particular heartburn, but there's a lot of reform that deals with states' ability to amass, record, and report back data that's just not done."
Whether a long-term bill is actually in the cards depends on the eternal question of how to pay for it. The 18.4-cent per gallon federal gas tax hasn't been boosted since 1993 and is not indexed to inflation. The Highway Trust Fund will dry up in May, and DOT has warned that $124 billion is necessary over the next six years just to keep infrastructure at the status quo.
The plummet in gas prices has made legislators more amenable to discussing a gas-tax increase (conservatives prefer to call it a "user fee"), although other proposals include everything from repatriating money from business being done overseas to implementing a carbon tax to bridge the shortfall.
It'll be up to the Finance Committee to come up with the money, while Energy and Public Works will draft the highway title that traditionally is the base of the Senate's bill. Commerce and the Banking Committee, which handles mass transit, work on their titles separately and join them together on the floor (besides the safety agencies, Commerce also writes language related to transport of hazardous materials and has oversight of the Office of the DOT Secretary).