A $305 Billion Highway Deal in Congress

House and Senate negotiators announced an agreement to reauthorize federal transportation programs for the next five years.

Skip Peterson / AP

For most of the last 10 years, the Highway Trust Fund has been a government account constantly on the brink of depletion. In the next several days, however, Congress is likely to replenish it for the rest of the decade.

House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday announced a bipartisan agreement on a five-year reauthorization of federal transportation programs—the longest such measure that Congress has advanced since 2005. Both chambers are expected to pass the deal in the next two weeks before leaving for the year.

At a cost of $305 billion, the final compromise is a bit smaller than a $340 billion bill passed by the House last month. The Senate had previously approved its own proposal that lasted for six years but only paid for three of them. To resolve the differences, the negotiators shortened the length of the bill by a year but made sure it did not add significantly to the deficit. Because Congress was unwilling to increase the gas tax or find another revenue source to sustain transportation funding into the future, lawmakers turned to measures that conservatives and fiscal hawks view as gimmicks. Advocates for higher infrastructure spending say a new revenue source—likely a tax increase of some sort—is needed to fully update the nation’s roads, bridges, and rails. A proposal released Monday by Hillary Clinton would nearly double what Congress is planning to spend.

Yet state and local governments, along with business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, will just be happy to have this initial infusion and the long-term certainty of federal funding for the next five years. They had long complained that the fits-and-starts nature of infrastructure funding in recent years had restricted their ability to plan big projects and limited economic growth. Beyond roads and bridges, the measure also funds public transit, freight rail, and transportation safety programs. “This legislation is a vital investment in our country,” the congressional negotiators said in a joint statement.

A safe, efficient surface transportation network is fundamentally necessary to our quality of life and our economy, and this conference report provides long-term certainty for states and local governments, and good reforms and improvements to the programs that sustain our roads, bridges, transit, and passenger rail system.

The highway bill is one of three major pieces of legislation that could pass Congress in the next few weeks. The House and Senate are expected to soon approve a bipartisan overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law, and the two chambers must pass a large spending bill to fund the government and avert a government shutdown.

Passage of the highway bill will also deliver a victory for advocates of the Export-Import Bank, the 80-year-old federal lending agency revived in the legislation. Conservative critics of the program had scored an initial win when Congress allowed the bank’s charter to expire over the summer, but it did not last long.

Supporters of a program that provides health benefits to ailing 9/11 first responders were not so lucky. The World Trade Center Health Program expired two months ago, and New York lawmakers had hoped to attach its renewal to the highway bill. They will now look to extend it when Congress considers another must-pass bill this month to fund the government after December 11.