Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said something very sharp and direct the other day about the prospects for transportation funding, even if it was only direct by Washington standards of political politesse. Anyone who cares about the prospects for improving highways, bridges and ports should take it very seriously.

Pressed at a hearing in Congress about the prospects for funding infrastructure improvements, LaHood quipped, “The only thing we need, the only thing, is about $450 billion.”

But, he told the members of Congress, “You know as well as I do, the Highway Trust Fund is deficient. So I don’t know if the courage is around here to do something about that.”

LaHood’s comment was a rare breath of fresh air, a rush of realism, in an argument over priorities that’s been marked by equal parts posturing and a kind of blind optimism over what is, after all, a political process. The optimism comes in the belief that because increasing infrastructure funding is important, that it will help the U.S. economy and is somehow the right thing to do, Congress will see the light, raise the federal fuel tax and the American voting public will respond with reasoned wisdom.

But this is the point in any commentary about political situations in which it’s customary to quote Otto Von Bismarck, so here goes: As the 19th century German politician famously said, politics is the art of the possible. We don’t know what Von Bismarck thought about infrastructure funding, but clearly in the political environment of 2010, raising federal fuel taxes for the first time in 20 years simply is not going to happen.

Questioning the courage of elected officials is probably going too far, but there was plenty of evidence at the hearing of the political minefield around fuel taxes. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., peppered LaHood with questions as if LaHood had not repeatedly and adamantly said the president is against raising the gas tax.

Mica, presumably building up credentials for his re-election campaign, seemed to suggest he personally had derailed some administration plan to impose higher fuel taxes.

That may be just another act in traditional political theater, but it also carries an important lesson for the shippers, transportation providers and business groups that are stamping their feet, understandably, calling for a federal fuel tax increase.

There is a serious gap between the infrastructure businesses and voters want and what they’re actually willing to pay to improve roads leading to seaports, airports and distribution centers. A recent Pew Research-National Journal poll, cited by The Washington Post, found 53 percent of Americans — the Americans horrified by earmarks — are more likely to vote for a politician who brings in government money for local projects, while 12 percent are less likely to vote for such a candidate.

That gap is a fair picture of political reality. For companies that believe it’s critically important to improve roads to seaports, airports and distribution centers, it means they’ll need to have the courage to find alternatives to raising federal fuel taxes.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at Follow Paul Page on Twitter,

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