A bipartisan group of Senators has agreed on the outline of bill to reauthorize the federal highway program.

The terms of the deal cover policy principles such as a long-term bill and maintaining existing programs but they do not cover the key question of how to pay for the program.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, announced the deal on Thursday and said the committee will act on the bill when it returns from recess the last week of April.

Joining Boxer in the announcement were Sens. David Vitter, R-La., the ranking member of the committee, Thomas Carper, D-Del., and John Barrasso, R-Wyoming.

Boxer spelled out the principles included in the deal.

  • The bill should cover a longer term than the current two-year program – up to six years, reflecting the strong desire of highway users and planners for an extended, predictable program.
  •  It should maintain current formulas for core programs.
  • It should promote fiscal responsibility by keeping current levels of funding, plus inflation.
  • It should expand opportunities for rural areas.
  • It should continue efforts to leverage local resources for projects.
  • It should require better information sharing on federal grants.

Congress is under pressure to act quickly. The Highway Trust Fund, the source of federal funding for highways, is going to run into the red within the next six months, perhaps as soon as August.

“The reason the four of us are standing here is to send a strong signal to this country that we, as leaders of this Committee, have worked across party lines to act before the Highway Trust Fund cannot pay its bills,” Boxer said.

The Environment and Public Works Committee is responsible for the main policy content of the bill, but other key areas must be handled by other committees.

The all-important matter of funding is the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee.

“(Finance) has to figure out how to pay for this six-year bill,” said Vitter. “EPW has an easier role.”

Also involved are the Commerce Committee, which writes the safety title of the bill, and the Banking Committee, which is responsible for transit.

On the House side, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is holding hearings in preparation for drafting a bill by summer.