WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday approved two cash infusions for the nearly broke Highway Trust Fund, but the fate of the longer six-year plan now lies in the more partisan U.S. House, which has already left town for its August recess.
The fund, which is tapped for infrastructure projects all over the country, is now funded through October — which everyone agreed was necessary so states could continue to fund midsummer construction projects.
This was the 33rd short-term extension approved by Congress in recent years.
But the GOP-controlled Senate on Thursday also passed a six-year plan that could mean a whole lot more cash for states like Minnesota — but only if the even more conservative House embraces the idea when it returns to Washington in September.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who has been toiling on the deal for years, was abuzz about the bipartisanship behind the Senate’s six-year plan and the security it could bring to the Trust Fund.
“I know it hasn’t passed the House, but for the Senate, and (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell … to come together and find these funding sources is a really big deal,” Klobuchar said. “There was no knee-jerk stuff in here, to put it mildly … It amounts to increases, something our state has been clamoring for.”
Klobuchar said she has been working on a long-term transportation bill basically since 2007, when the structurally deficient Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, injuring more than 140 people and killing 13.
Minnesota received $731 million from the federal government this year. Under the Senate’s measure passed Thursday, the state would get $812 million by 2018. The cash would be designated for transit, highway and bridge projects.
The Highway Trust Fund is the federal pot of cash that pays for much of the nation’s infrastructure projects. It’s been low on cash for more than a decade mostly because cars have gotten more fuel efficient.
In recent weeks there has been more tension between the two chambers than between Democrats and Republicans on figuring out how to fix the Highway Trust Fund cash problem.
Senators have been pushing for a longer-term fix that includes more money — both parties having to embrace some controversial ways to pay for the six-year, $275 billion plan.
House leadership is eyeing its more conservative flank. So far, it has preferred to simply maintain current funding levels, rather than give any new money to states.
Democratic Reps. Tim Walz and Rick Nolan say there is appetite for a longer-term plan in the other chamber.
Nolan, a member of the House transportation committee, said he extracted a personal promise from Republican leadership that if he supported one more short-term deal, he would get to dig in on a longer-term plan.
“I don’t want to just take the Senate bill,” Nolan said Thursday. “This is the last time I’m going to kick the can down the road. Here’s the good news, I’m convinced that if we’re given an opportunity, we can write a good bipartisan long-term transportation bill.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation said that based on 2013 data, 1,513 of Minnesota’s 13,000 bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. More than half the state’s roads are in “poor or mediocre” condition, federal officials said.
Minnesota has not canceled any projects because of the unpredictable nature of the funding streams, but Margaret Donahoe, executive director at the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said that without a long-term funding solution, bigger projects eventually could face delays.
Gov. Mark Dayton, traveling through Washington last week, said transportation is not a partisan issue among governors.
“We’re pragmatists,” he said. “This is of the common interest and common good. We keep our fingers crossed with Congress.”