Blunt, McCaskill still working for federal transportation funds

From the Jefferson City News Tribune

Congress still is working on plans to continue funding for the nation’s transportation system, including roads and bridges, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt told reporters Wednesday.

“I’d be really disappointed if we don’t have a multi-year transportation bill,” the Missouri Republican said during a conference call. “I would like it to be a five- or six- year bill.”

Recently, Congress has been passing short-term extensions of the last transportation funding bill, which leaves state planners with questions about the long-range prognosis.

“You can’t build roads and bridges six months at a time or, even, two years at a time,” Blunt said.

Also Wednesday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said she’s moving to use unspent transportation earmark funds across the country to address critical transportation needs.

In a news release, McCaskill said she’s “teaming up” with U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., “to claw back previously earmarked, but unspent, taxpayer dollars at the Department of Transportation.”

Her news release noted the Federal Highway Administration reports more than $5.9 billion in congressional earmarks for road and bridge projects remain unspent, with almost $5.7 billion of that total unspent since at least 2006.

Some unspent earmarks date as far back as 1978.

“The 2005 surface transportation reauthorization included nearly 5,000 earmarks totaling more than $16.5 billion,” McCaskill emphasized.

“At the end of 2014, $4.7 billion of that funding — 29 percent of the bill’s earmarked funds — remains unspent.”

While some road and bridge projects are paid for only with local funds, most include a substantial amount of federal funding.

For federal roads — like U.S. 50, 54 and 63, and Interstate 70 — the U.S. government pays 80 percent of the costs, as long as state and local officials can meet the match.

Blunt said a multi-year funding bill “is a lot better way to spend federal money and to get the best buy in transportation.

“It’s also a lot better way to send a message to Jefferson City and (other) state capitals — this is what the highway program’s going to look like for this many years.

“This is how much money is going to be available.

“Here’s what it takes — here are the matching requirements (and) it’s up to your state, then, to decide — as we would say to all state capitals.”

One of the issues Missouri officials face is not having enough money to meet the federal match.

On Tuesday, the Congressional Quarterly’s “Roll Call” news service reported leaders of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee have unveiled a new six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill “costing more than a quarter-trillion dollars, but it’s still unclear how the Senate would pay for it.”

The Roll Call story said the proposal would “place a new priority on funding streams for off-system bridges as well as a new grant program for projects of strategic and national significance.”

Blunt said Wednesday one of the issues Congress has to decide is how to pay for whatever bill they pass.

“The real discussion on the Highway Bill is, how do you close the gap between what the gas tax will provide and what the transportation bill needs, to have the kind of spending and investment in transportation that we have to have?” Blunt said. “The gas tax comes pretty close to providing all of the money it takes for roads and bridges — but, in recent years, a number of other things have been added to that bill, and how do we fund that?

“Or do you no longer fund that as part of a highway bill?

“All are a legitimate part of that debate.”

Blunt hopes Congress will pass a new transportation bill by the end of July, but said some U.S. House leaders appear to be more interested in having a bill by the end of the year.