WASHINGTON — A 5-year, $305-billion bill to address the nation’s aging and congested transportation systems was signed into law Friday by President Barack Obama, who said it will put Americans to work and provide states with the federal help they need to commit to long-term projects.
The bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by Congress a day earlier, provides a modest increase to highway and transit spending but falls short of the $400 billion over six years administration officials said is necessary to keep traffic congestion from worsening. Nor does it resolve how to pay for transportation programs in the long term.
Obama said he’ll continue to push for greater transportation spending to meet the nation’s infrastructure needs and create jobs.
“This bill is not perfect, but it is a common-sense compromise, and an important first step in the right direction,” Obama said in a statement Friday.
Despite that, the 1,300-page bill was hailed by lawmakers and the industry as a major accomplishment that will halt the cycle of last-minute, short-term fixes that have kept the federal Highway Trust Fund teetering on the edge of insolvency for much of the past eight years.
Republicans leaders pointed to the bill’s passage as evidence of their ability to govern, and Obama can claim progress on addressing the nation’s deficient bridges and crowded highways, a major goal since the early days of his administration.
Lawmakers in both parties praised the bill as a model of bipartisan cooperation. Support for the measure was increased by a generous helping of business favors, parochial provisions, safety improvements and union demands.
“In the end, there wasn’t really a philosophical problem here,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “The question was, how could we pull together these disparate pieces into one mosaic that actually had a chance to get somewhere?”
But Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a prominent supporter of increasing transportation spending, said the deals cut to win the bill’s passage caused him to reluctantly vote against it.
“While this bill includes some good transportation policies, the way we pay for these policies is unsustainable and irresponsible, offering little more than a grab bag of budget gimmicks that will actually increase our deficit in the long run,” he said.
One hallmark of the bill is the creation of new programs to focus federal aid on eliminating bottlenecks and increasing the capacity of highways designated as major freight corridors. The Transportation Department estimates the volume of freight traffic will increase 45 percent over the next 30 years.
A big shortcoming in the bill, though, is how it’s all financed. The main source of revenue for transportation is the trust fund, which comes mostly from the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax. That tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 even though transportation spending has increased. But raising the gas tax is viewed by many lawmakers as too politically risky.
To make up the shortfall, the bill uses about $70 billion in mostly budget ploys, including one that would move $53 billion from the Federal Reserve Bank’s capital account to the general treasury. It’s counted as new money on paper, but is actually just a transfer of funds from one government account to another, federal budget experts said.
Other items in the bill also don’t include the means to pay for them, including more than $10 billion over five years for Amtrak and other rail programs, $12 billion for mass transit and $1 billion for vehicle safety programs. The money for those programs remains subject to annual spending decisions by Congress.
Among the bill’s losers are large banks, which would receive lower dividends from the Federal Reserve, with the savings used for transportation programs. Banking officials complained that banks shouldn’t be asked to foot the bill for highways and bridges.
The airline and cruise ship industries complained that their passengers are also being asked to pay for improvements unrelated to their travel. The bill ties customs fees to inflation and uses the increased revenue to offset the bill’s cost. It also directs the sale of 66 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to raise $6.5 billion. The catch is the sales don’t start until 2023 — three years after the transportation bill it helps pay for has expired.
The trucking industry was able to persuade lawmakers to order the government to remove trucking company safety scores from a public website despite opposition from safety advocates. Industry officials say the government’s methodology is unfair. But safety advocates won inclusion of a long-sought provision requiring rental car agencies to repair recalled cars and trucks before renting them.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents city bus drivers, won a provision requiring the government to direct transit agencies to take steps to protect bus drivers from assault, a growing problem. The Federal Transit Administration is required to consider whether local transit agencies provide bathroom breaks and access to bathrooms for bus drivers when evaluating the safety of the agencies.
A provision sponsored by Rep. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat whose district includes Las Vegas, authorizes the creation of a national advisory committee made up of travel and tourism industry officials to develop a national strategy for ensuring that transportation policies address the needs of travelers. Another provision sought by the dairy industry and sponsored by upstate New York, Connecticut and Wisconsin lawmakers allows trucks hauling milk to exceed federal weight limits for interstate highways in some cases.