WASHINGTON -- Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Tuesday that his own party is one of the main problems when it comes to finding a path forward on long-term, increased funding for the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Inhofe remained optimistic that Congress could act on a six-year extension of the Highway Trust Fund -- but not until the end of the year, and only if Republicans make highways a priority. The trust fund is the federal money pot that pays for the country’s transportation infrastructure, and it’s in a dire state. Without congressional action this week, the fund will expire on May 31.
Right now, Congress plans to authorize a two-month extension of the fund, which will allow the Transportation Department to continue giving states money for transit projects up to July. After July, however, legislators will need to find an additional funding source for a long-term bill.
“The problem with this bill is really more Republicans than Democrats,” Inhofe said.
It’s happened before, he added, noting a 27-month extension bill that Republicans had trouble getting behind.
“If you remember the 27-month bill, we had a hard time with all these Republicans. I can say this, no one else can, because I’ve been ranked as the most conservative member more than anyone else has. We had a bunch of demagogues down there, Republicans who were trying to say, ‘Oh, we can’t do this. We can’t spend all this money on it.’ I thought that’s not right,” Inhofe said.
Initially, Inhofe wanted to get a six-year funding bill passed by this summer, but now it will have to wait until the end of the year. Despite weeks of negotiations with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and other members on the Finance Committee, a long-term bill has proved elusive as the expiration clock winds down.
Hatch continues to say that he has a plan up his sleeve to get Republicans behind a multi-year bill and find a funding source everyone can agree on. Where the money comes from is a major sticking point, but according to the Senate Budget Committee, funding would likely need to reach $90 billion in order to get a six-year bill. In the House, GOP leadership says it is looking to tax revenue from repatriated corporate profits as an option to pay for the highway fund, but Senate leaders are unlikely to warm up to that idea.
Prominent labor and business groups, including the AFL-CIO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, are pushing lawmakers to increase the gas tax -- the primary source of funding for the nation’s transportation system. The federal tax of 18.4 cents on each gallon of gas hasn’t been increased in decades, and a majority of Republicans adamantly oppose it. Inhofe isn’t one of them, but he understands its an unlikely solution.
The constant uncertainty surrounding the fund has led at least six states to stop work on critical infrastructure projects. Inhofe said the continual short-term patches passed by Congress are having a “huge impact.”
“I was a contractor for 20 years of my life, and I know something about this. It takes lead time. You have to know how much money. You’ve got to line up your labor market. You have to do it in a way that is most cost-efficient, because there’s a lot of flexibility in that,” he said Tuesday.
As chairman of the Environment and Public Work Committee, Inhofe is set to mark up a six-year funding bill in June. But he still didn’t have an answer for where the money will come from, saying he’s leaving that up to the Finance Committee.
“Confession is good for the soul, and I have to tell you that I have talked to all of those guys over there in the Finance Committee. I’m getting assurance that by the end of the year we will have enough money for a six-year bill,” he said.
Inhofe wasn’t ecstatic about waiting until the end of the year to push through a multi-year extension, but says now he thinks there will be a way forward.
“Now it appears that in order to have access to money for a six-year bill, we’re going to have to go to the year’s end,” Inhofe said.
In the end, however, it will take getting Republicans on the same page -- behind increased funding and a specific source for the money.
“Clearly, this is something that we’re supposed to be doing. A true conservative looks at it and says … we’re supposed to defend America, and build roads and highways.’ The other stuff is secondary. That’s why I’m critical of a lot of the so-called conservative Republicans complaining about a highway bill,” Inhofe said.
Jesse Rifkin contributed.