US struggles to find long-term infrastructure plan

| Jul 22, 2014 8:37AM EDT

Infrastructure

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says he won’t be celebrating if a $10.9 billion injection for the Highway Trust Fund approved by the House last week makes it through the Senate.

The trust fund needs that money to stay solvent through next spring, but what the nation needs more is a long-term transportation funding bill, Foxx said yesterday at the National Press Club.

“Congress will push the snooze button on this issue until crunch time” rolls around next May, Foxx said in a speech. “We’ve got a big problem, and we’re treating it like a little problem.”

Earlier this week, Foxx and 11 former transportation secretaries from Alan Boyd — appointed by President Johnson in 1966 — to Foxx’s predecessor Ray LaHood released an open letter urging Congress to take long-term steps to address the “enormous infrastructure deficit — a nationwide backlog” of maintenance and rebuilding. “Never in our nation’s history has America’s transportation system been on a more unsustainable course,” the letter said.

Over the past five years, the letter noted, Congress has passed 27 short-term transportation funding measures. “Today, we are more than a decade past the last six-year funding measure. This is no way to run a railroad, fill a pothole or repair a bridge. In fact, the unpredictability about when, or if, funding will come has caused states to delay or cancel projects altogether.”

The problem is no one in Washington, including Foxx, has a workable plan — meaning one that can make it through Congress —  on how to fix the Highway Trust Fund for the long-term. In his speech, Foxx touted the Grow America Act, the Obama administration’s $302 billion transportation bill, which depends largely on corporate tax reform and tolling existing interstates.

“We put forward the Grow America Act to end the handwringing and increase investment in the HTF 37 percent,” Foxx said. “Congress can pay for the Grow America Act without raising taxes by doing common sense tax reform,” he said — though corporate tax reform is believed to be a long-shot this year at best. The four-year administration bill, introduced in May, is considered unlikely to progress, though some provisions may survive and resurface in House and Senate bills.

The Senate is working on a six-year bill but has no funding mechanism yet, while the House has yet to release a bill. The House passed a short-term bill to replenish the Highway Trust Fund on July 16, and the Senate is expected to consider a similar bill later this month, before an August deadline.

One solution not on Foxx’s table is an increase in the federal fuels tax, which hasn’t changed since 1993. Increasing the fuels tax “is not a 21st century solution” to the funding problem, he said.

“The gas tax itself has some challenges,” Foxx said. “No matter where you set the level [of the tax], the curve is downward facing,” largely because Americans are driving more fuel-efficient cars, and more hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles are likely in the future.

Little action past the short-term $10.9 billion “patch” is expected until after the November election. In the meantime, Washington will struggle to come up with a long-term plan for funding infrastructure and develop a long-term vision that looks beyond the next election cycle.

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @wbcassidy_joc.