The logic behind the two competing proposals for a long-term transportation spending plan sound pretty good unless you go outside the Beltway’s infrastructure circles.
A luncheon debate this week between Ken Orski, editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, and Bill Millar, American Public Transportation Association president, went over all the points in detail, but it really sounded like it was taking place in echo chamber when you consider all the larger political debates going on in the country. Orski pushed for Rep. John Mica’s six-year, $230 billion plan, while Millar supported Sen. Barbara Boxer’s two-year, $109 billion plan.
Orski favors more spending but supports the more modest plan because he said the Boxer plan risks bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund. Raising the motor fuel tax would eliminate this risk, but Orski says that’s politically infeasible.
But that’s the glaring contradiction in the arguments for transportation investment. Many business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say a tax hike is needed to keep the U.S. competitive. But the Chamber often backs candidates who insist they won’t raise any taxes, anytime, anywhere.
On the other hand, Millar’s belief that legislators can convince their constituents that raising the fuel tax amid a unstable economic recovery seems a bit off. Once out of the Beltway, the logic and rightness of making sacrifices to improve the nation’s infrastructure is overcome by the cold reality of a 9.1 percent national unemployment rate and growing skepticism of government spending.
The limitations of both proposals will likely leave a hollow ringing for years to come.