The Department of Transportation’s top chief is accusing lawmakers of “killing our transportation system slowly” as Congress scrambles to approve a short-term solution to keep the nation’s highways from going broke.
The Highway Trust Fund is on the brink of insolvency. If lawmakers can’t cut a deal before August 1, nearly 112,000 roadway projects and 5,600 transit projects will be delayed and about 700,000 construction jobs will be lost next year, the Obama administration has warned.
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The Senate is expected to vote on highway funding proposals this week, including an $11 billion measure the House approved last week that would keep the fund solvent through May 2015. That measure was authored by Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI). They will also consider a similar bill introduced in the Senate.
But even if the legislation passes, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx warns that it won’t be time to pop the champagne just yet.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Monday, Foxx emphasized the need for lawmakers to pass a long-term reform bill instead of just routinely patching up the Highway Trust Fund. Right now, the fund finances more than $50 billion a year in major highway, bridge and transit projects. But revenue from the gas and diesel fuel taxes hasn’t kept pace with highway project expenditures, forcing the government to shift money from other areas into the fund.
“Congress is running out of seat cushions to find money to patch highways,” Foxx said. “Come May 2015, we’ll be right back here again.”
He diagnosed the nation’s infrastructure with “chronic underinvestment” and said, “We need a transportation reset and it’s got to be big.”
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The administration early this year proposed a $302 billion transportation funding bill that would be paid for by closing tax loopholes, though any plan that involves tax reform is not likely any time soon with a divided Congress.“This ought to be easy. And when you talk to members of Congress, the argument is we can’t do it because we can’t,” Foxx said. “The idea that Congress can’t pass a forward thinking transportation bill is one of the biggest self-fulfilling prophecies. And it is killing our transportation system slowly.”
On Capitol Hill, the consensus seems to be similar. Most say a long-term solution is ideal, but neither side can agree on pay-fors or other amendments. Congress hasn’t passed a transportation spending bill that has lasted longer than two years since 2005.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced a plan that would fund the highways through December with the intention of forcing Congress to pass a long-term bill during the lame-duck session. But some lawmakers argue that Congress won’t approve a long-term bill during that time period. House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) warned against “putting all your eggs in a lame-duck basket,” Politico reported.
If Congress continues to pass only stopgap measures, Foxx warned, there will be more problems down the road, since spending time on temporary plans “delays finding a permanent funding solution.”
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