GOP Gets Lost In Search For Highway Funds; Will Senate Find The Way?

Isaiah J. Poole

A bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) plan a private meeting Wednesday to discuss options for funding future transportation projects, according to a spokesperson for the senator.

Let’s hope what they come up with something better than the stinker that was quietly plopped into the infrastructure funding debate just before the Memorial Day recess by House Republican leaders. A plan endorsed by House Speaker John Boehner would have authorized the end of Saturday mail delivery, with the savings being used to help pay for transportation projects.

That plan had the power to unite the conservative Heritage Foundation and congressional Democrats – in jaw-agape derision. The idea of taking money from the money-losing U.S. Postal Service – which loses money because of overly burdensome pension payment requirements imposed by Congress – to patch the money-losing Highway Trust Fund was labeled as “absurd” by Heritage spokesman Dan Heller, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said it was “unworkable” and “makes no sense.”

One could surmise that even Boehner, along with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), did not think that highly of the idea, which would explain why it was first disclosed on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, when the public was either focused on the Veterans Administration scandal or on getting ready for the long holiday weekend.

But the issues behind this you-must-be-joking idea are no laughing matter. The federal government’s Highway Trust Fund, the source of about 30 percent of the total amount of money the country spends on its roads, bridges and public transportation, is expected to run out of cash this summer. The federal gasoline tax hasn’t been increased since the mid-1990s, and better fuel efficiency means motorists are buying less gasoline to tax.

Unless Congress finds additional funding, construction projects across the country would grind to a halt and hundreds of thousands of jobs would be put at risk.

Congress also has to reauthorize the programs through which funds are funneled to states and localities for transportation projects. That process completed its first stage in the Senate when the Environment and Public Works Committee approved a six-year infrastructure program. The measure the committee sent to the full Senate is strikingly conservative in its scope; it anticipates “current funding plus inflation” through fiscal 2020, spending more than $35 billion less in six years than the $302 billion that the Obama administration recommended spending in just four years.

A functional Congress focused on the plight of working people would have long ago put in place a robust public transportation plan – to deal with the increased congestion and increased number of safety risks on our roads, bridges and rails, and to quickly create millions of good-quality jobs ranging from design to construction. The result would address our short-term jobs crisis and our long-term need for a safer, more efficient and greener transportation network that could support future economic growth.

That win-win scenario is still possible, but it will take a combination of creative leadership and aggressive grassroots advocacy to make it happen.

It will also take vigilance against another stinker of an idea that is nonetheless being taken more seriously in Congress than it should be: giving multinational corporations that have parked profits overseas to avoid taxation a deep tax break if they invest in infrastructure bonds.

Recently Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the administration’s plan to raise $150 billion through yet-to-be-spelled-out, one-time corporate tax measures – of which the tax break on overseas profits invested in bonds could be one – “is the best way to thread the needle and get something done.”

But allowing a form of “repatriation tax holiday” that would reward corporations for gaming the tax code, and encourage them to game it in the future in anticipation of yet another “holiday” break, is the worst way to address our infrastructure funding needs.

Wyden himself is on the right track when he points to alternatives like reviving the Build America Bonds program that was part of the Recovery Act economic stimulus package passed in 2009. During the program’s existence in 2009 and 2010, $181 billion in bonds were purchased by financial institutions and other entities, providing state and local governments with a vital source of low-cost capital for construction projects.

What would make Wednesday’s senatorial tete-a-tete the kind of logjam-breaking event we need on this issue is if the participating lawmakers mustered the courage to say that the United States should join the rest of the industrial world in what it commits to its infrastructure – and how it pays for it.

Joshua L. Schank, the president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think thank devoted to “continuous improvement in transportation,” wrote in The New York Times this week that “no other developed nation relies so heavily on user fees like the gas tax” to fund its transportation infrastructure. Schank argues that an increasingly urban, less car-dependent nation shouldn’t try to patch a funding scheme better suited for the 1960s. “Your commute is unlikely to improve until we pay for and invest in transportation as if it’s the 21st century,” he concludes.

That would make it more important to focus on reforming our tax code – so that everyone pays their fair share and multinational corporations can’t avoid supporting the infrastructure upon which they depend – and investing in the job-creating infrastructure we need to support a growing Main Street economy.

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