USA TODAY: Funding shortfall for roads, bridges particularly vexing for GOP

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The data analytics group Transit Labs reports that Republicans represent 45 of the 50 congressional districts with more than 300 structurally deficient bridges.

BY Brian J. Tumulty, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Two Senate Democrats said Thursday they will propose extending a federal transportation bill by two months, but a crisis is still looming as the Highway Trust Fund approaches insolvency sometime this summer.

The current transportation bill expires at the end of this month. The proposal by Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Barbara Boxer of California would authorize federal highway and transit programs through July but doesn’t address the funding dilemma.

Key House and Senate lawmakers have been unable to agree on a temporary tax or package of taxes that would provide the $10 billion needed to keep the trust fund afloat through the end of the year. Instead, Republicans recently began eyeing spending cuts in other parts of the federal budget keep the Highway Trust Fund afloat, which is unacceptable to Democrats.

“If it’s not bipartisan, it’s not going to fly,” said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “Democrats have some ideas, Republicans have some ideas. They ought to meet in the middle.”

A spokesman for Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Hatch “is working to find a solution by the end of the month that funds the program through the end of the year so the Finance Committee has more time to work on a long-term solution.”

A proposed short-term extension of the current transportation bill is opposed by a bipartisan group of House members led by Republicans James Renacci of Ohio and Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Democrats Peter Welch of Vermont and John Carney of Delaware. They are circulating a letter demanding a long-term multi-year solution.

The problem is particularly vexing for Republicans because many have pledged to never vote for a tax increase. Yet many Republican House members have significant infrastructure needs in their districts.

The data analytics group Transit Labs reports that Republicans represent 45 of the 50 congressional districts with more than 300 structurally deficient bridges. The report used Transportation Department data overlaid on the boundaries of congressional districts.

Republican Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, No. 5 on the Transit Labs list with 1,345 structurally deficient bridges, supports a long-term solution.

“The significance and volume of repairs that are needed across the country demand that we give state and local governments the long-term certainty they need to effectively execute these projects,” Graves said in a statement. “That is why I have been a consistent supporter of a five- to-six-year bill.”

Graves also said he’s support “a temporary revenue measure that will keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent through the end of this year and give both Senate and House committees the time to secure the funding necessary for long-term reauthorization.”

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said Republicans have ruled out an increase in the federal gasoline tax.

The Highway Trust Fund receives revenue mostly from an 18.3 cents-a-gallon federal tax on gasoline and specialty motor fuels, along with a 24.3 cents-a-gallon tax on diesel fuel and kerosene.

Current tax revenue is insufficient for a variety of reasons, including a failure by Congress to adjust the gas tax for inflation and a decline in revenue because vehicles have become more fuel efficient, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Since 2008, Congress has transferred nearly $62 billion from the general fund to keep the Highway Trust Fund afloat.