The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s highway bill picks up on the reforms initiated by its predecessor, MAP-21, and proposes modest funding for a six-year program.

The committee calls for current funding levels plus inflation, compared to the $302 billion, four-year program proposed by the Obama administration.

These are the first two of the half-dozen bills that will eventually be combined to create the next federal highway program.

The Senate Finance Committee is working on how to pay for the program. The Senate Commerce Committee is holding hearings on safety and other provisions. The Senate Banking Committee is responsible for the transit section of the bill. In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee drafts the main bill while the Ways and Means Committee is in charge of the money.

Photo: Evan Lockridge

Photo: Evan Lockridge

The current highway program expires September 30 but there is considerable urgency about getting the replacement done before then since the Highway Trust Fund will run into the red in August.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx this week warned state transportation departments that DOT is planning to institute cash management restrictions on the Fund. These could lead to delays in reimbursements for projects that have already begun, Foxx said.

If Congress cannot come to terms on the policy and funding details soon, it may have to pass a continuing resolution to give itself more time.

The Commerce Committee’s bill echoes the key themes Congress established in MAP-21: more transparency on how money is spent, quicker project delivery, more support for financing programs such as Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation and more flexibility for state and local governments.

In addition, the bill increases funding for core transportation programs and the most important projects.

Of particular interest to trucking, the bill proposes more support for the freight program that began with MAP-21.

It sets aside $6 billion for fiscal years 2016 through 2020 for the freight program.

It addresses some of the concerns that DOT has encountered in designating a Primary Freight Network, such as allowing for additional roadway miles in the network and accommodating intermodal needs.

In addition, the bill gives rural and urban areas more flexibility in designating freight corridors beyond the primary network. And it supports efforts by states to identify freight projects with a high return on investment.

“I’m particularly proud that we were able to include a formula-based freight program that will provide $2 billion annually for states to improve the flow of freight on key corridors,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., in a statement.

Carper, a member of the committee, said the freight program is key to supporting economic growth.

“These high-value projects will be targeted at improving the affordability, reliability, and efficiency of freight movement, reducing costs for businesses to help them to grow and better compete,” he said.

He also noted that the bill includes funds for diesel engine retrofits to reduce pollution.

The committee will consider amendments and vote on the bill this Thursday.