U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall has been on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee for less than a year, but he's already been doing some heavy lifting.
The House just passed its version of a six-year transportation funding bill, a feat which has eluded federal lawmakers for years. Over the past six years, there have been 35 short-term extensions as legislators who were reticent to raise taxes and unable to find any other long-term funding source kicked the can down the road.
The problem is motor fuel tax collections, which have slowly eroded over time. The 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax is the primary funding source for all federal and state transportation projects. However, with vehicles becoming more fuel efficient, Americans are buying less gas and therefore paying less taxes to drive on roads than they once did. At the same time, the cost to build and maintain roads has skyrocketed.
So it's no surprise that the Highway Trust Fund is continuously teetering on the edge of insolvency.
The $340 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act would provide some much needed predictability for state transportation planners and maintain road and transit funding levels at about the same level they are now. However, so far Congress has only found guaranteed funding for the first three years of the six-year bill.
The legislation is now in a Conference Committee to help reconcile differences with the Senate bill passed in July. As it happens, Woodall has been appointed to the Conference Committee, too.
"What we’ve done on transportation is incredibly cooperative, it is incredibly bicameral," Woodall said after speaking on Tuesday to a gathering of transportation industry professionals in Atlanta. "My biggest concern is not getting involved in year-end politics. This is something that’s important to all of this so let’s keep it separate."
At the Georgia Transportation Summit, Woodall said that he's hopeful a resolution can be reached by Nov. 20. That is the deadline for the latest extension of transportation funding to expire. Or if not by Nov. 20, Woodall said the committee is shooting for early December.
He also hopes that the full six years can be funded with what has been viewed as the preferred method by many in Congress, international tax reform.
"Right now while the iron is hot, while folks are taking the victory lap for getting the good policy done, let’s go ahead and make the hard decisions and get the funding done," Woodall said.
After the Conference Committee report is completed, it will go back to both chambers for a final vote.
State Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said that he was encouraged to hear that Congress appears close to a compromise.
Three weeks ago, GDOT decided to delay $123 million worth of federally funded projects due to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding federal highway funding. The 34 delayed projects were previously scheduled to go out for bids at the end of this year.
If federal funding gets back on track, those projects would still be shelved until after the new year. However, they could be bid out in January or February as long as GDOT has 30 days to advertise them first.
"It appears Congress, between the House and Senate, know how vital this is," McMurry said. "They know that we need a long-term bill. We are very close to getting that bill."