In a fun-house mirror world in which Tea Party mad-hatters drive the agenda of at least one house of Congress, a Politico op-ed co-authored by former Bush cabinet member Tom Ridge and Peterson Foundation budget-cutting crusader David Walker is what passes for sane commentary.
The subject is transportation funding, which should be near the top of the 2011 legislative agenda because, done correctly, the White House and Congress can in one fell swoop create hundreds of thousands of jobs within weeks; set the foundation for more efficient movement of goods and people through the economy, and lower our fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Ridge and Walker, joined by former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, agree, and they directly criticize the extreme budget-slashing driven by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, which they say slashed transportation spending by 20 percent in the fiscal 2011 budget bill the House passed last month.
“We need to invest more in infrastructure. Less is the wrong way to go,” they write. One way to pay for it, they go on to write, is through “higher user fees (gas taxes) and at the wellhead through higher fees on production and importation of crude oil.”
The Obama administration is, in fact, proposing a significant increase in funding for highways and public transportation: $556 billion over a six-year period. That compares to the $286 billion bill President Bush signed in 2005. And President Obama has said he supports “front-loading” the spending so that it could act as a stimulus for the lackluster economy expected during the remainder of this year and 2012. While that proposal is awaiting action, Congress extended the life of the Bush funding levels for transportation through the end of the year.
But the administration has said it won’t support an increase in the federal gasoline tax to pay for it, even though the gasoline tax has remained at 18.4 cents since 1993. An increase to reflect the impact of consumer price inflation would set the gasoline tax at 28 cents. In the meantime, the average price of gasoline has tripled from the average of $1.06 a gallon at the start of 1993.
But considering an increase in the gasoline tax is not the only solution, and given that one goal is to lower gasoline consumption, the nation will need other ways besides gasoline taxes to finance a fuel-efficient, 21st-century transportation infrastructure. Having a national infrastructure bank is part of the funding puzzle. Once electric cars become mainstream, a mileage-based tax will likely be in order as well.
The point is that we’re not going to have infrastructure without paying for it, and We the People should insist that it be public infrastructure, not yet another item on corporate balance sheets to be manipulated to the interests of Wall Street financiers rather than in the public interest. The administration needs to help lead in building support for a robust, well-funded transportation bill in the face of a Congress that, through its budget slashing, is actually costing the economy jobs.
The irony is that it was the Ridges, Walkers and Bradleys of the world who at a minimum stood idly by as their friends at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporations fed the Tea Party beast that is now shredding the transportation agenda they say they want to get through Congress.
At least Walker, Ridge and Bradley are pointing in the right direction on this critical part of getting America back to work. It would be great if they would get to work talking sense to their Tea Party brethren — and give the Obama administration a bit more backbone.