U.S. House OKs short-term highway bill, Womack calls for ‘permanent’ deal

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 133 views 

A short-term funding bill that will authorize appropriations for federal-aid highway, highway safety and public transportation programs passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. House Wednesday.

The 312-119 vote on H.R. 3038 drew support from members of the state’s congressional delegation as U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, French Hill, R-Little Rock, Steve Womack, R-Rogers and Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, all voted yes.

In a statement Wednesday, Womack, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said the time was now for a more definitive funding measure.

“We desperately need a long-term highway funding bill, and it is frustrating that a permanent, sustainable, and agreeable revenue source still evades Congress,” said Womack, who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee as well as the Budget Committee. “Arkansas’s roads and bridges are in dire need of repair, and they are not waiting for Congress as they continue to crumble.”

He added, “I remain committed to finding a long-term solution but believe that we must provide states some level of certainty to prevent a critical interruption in transportation investment while we work towards returning solvency and dependability to the Highway Trust Fund once and for all.”

The bill, which will fund programs through Dec. 18, 2015, has been a discussion point for federal, state and local officials for several years.

Rep. Crawford, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also called for a long-term deal.

“Arkansas still needs a long term highway bill to address our outdated roads and bridges that facilitate crucial economic growth throughout our state. I’m disappointed, as are all Arkansans, that a long-term, sustainable funding mechanism for the highway bill has yet to be found, but in the mean time we must continue to fund our current transportation investments to keep the problem from getting worse. This short-term patch will allow all current programs to operate, and I will continue to work with Chairman Shuster and the rest of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in fighting for a permanent mechanism that funds the full reauthorization our country so desperately needs.”

Westerman used passage of the short-term fix to promote his legislative solution.

“Today, the House of Representatives passed a five month extension of the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Because we have immediate needs, I supported this short-term fix, although it provides no certainty to states like Arkansas. My bill, the Prioritizing American Jobs and Roads Act, would fully fund our transportation and infrastructure needs. It does this without raising taxes. It is the solution we need to keep Arkansas highway projects moving forward.”

Westerman’s bill would pare money from the Medicaid expansion funds under the Affordable Care Act and utilize a portion of it for highway funding.

Short of federal action, Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed a 20-member commission in June to discuss the highway funding issue. Hutchinson said the Working Group for Highway Funding has to look outside the box to complete much-needed projects.

“I want you to be creative,” Hutchinson said. “I want you to really look at what’s happening in other states. I want to look at public-private partnerships. I want to look at vehicle miles traveled as a means versus simply per gallon excise taxes. We’ve got to take in the where we’re going to be not just today, but where we’re going to be 10 years from now. How many cars on the road will be electric cars 10 years from now?”

The state group is expected to complete a report by the end of the year.

Already this year due to federal funding uncertainty, roughly 75 projects across Arkansas with an estimated value of $335 million have been canceled.

Danny Straessle, spokesman for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, said the House vote hasn’t clarified anything related to abandoned projects. He said highway officials are awaiting more information regarding the vote’s impact on Arkansas. Straessle also emphasized that the House vote was just the first step in trying to identify short-term certainty.

“We appreciate the House’s effort, but they are only one-third of the equation with the other two being the Senate and President Barack Obama,” Straessle said.

Arkansas and other states continue to prepare for either reductions or delays in highway funding and projects for some time. The state highway commission is scheduled to meet July 22 in Little Rock for its monthly meeting.

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