As published by Keith Laing in The Hill.
Unions push for highway spending Increase
The AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) said Friday that Congress should find a way to increase the amount of money the federal government spends on the nation’s infrastructure, despite the fact that federal funding for road and transit systems has largely dried up in recent years.
Lawmakers face a July 31 deadline for the expiration of the current infrastructure measure, and they are struggling to come up with a way to pay for even an extension that would keep the spending levels flat past this summer.
A Senate committee approved a plan this week to spend $275 billion on roads over the next six years – if lawmakers can come up with a way to pay for it.
AFL-CIO TTD President Ed Wytkind said Friday that the Senate plan does not go far enough, because it would only increase the federal government’s spending on infrastructure enough to keep up with inflation.
“At a time when Americans and American businesses are screaming for safer and more modern transportation options, flat funding for highways is not the way to go,” he said.
“Washington’s endless gridlock on almost everything … is forcing the various committees with jurisdiction over our surface transportation laws to report bills that lack sufficient resources for the modernization and expansion of our highway and transit networks,” Wytkind continued. “Congressional leaders and those in the tax-writing committees with the power to move a serious, long-term funding plan must step up to the plate to fix this problem.”
The federal government’s transportation spending is typically funded by a combination of the gas tax and transfers from other areas of the budget.
Lawmakers in both parties have said they want to pass an extension of the expiring transportation funding measure, but they are deadlocked on how to pay for another round of infrastructure spending.
Congress been grappling for the better part of a decade with a gap in transportation funding that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year.
The federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents per gallon, has been the traditional source of transportation funding since its inception in the 1930s. But it has not been increased since 1993, and improvements in auto fuel efficiency have sapped its purchasing power.
The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in approximately $34 billion annually.
Congress has not passed a transportation bill that lasts longer than two years since 2005.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion in addition to the gas tax revenue to close the gap long enough to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill, such as the measure in the Senate.
Transportation supporters have pushed for a gas tax increase to pay for a long-term transportation bill, but Republican lawmakers have ruled out such a hike.
Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the transportation funding gap in recent years, resulting in temporary fixes, such as a two-month patch that was approved by lawmakers last month. If lawmakers cannot come up with a way to pay for the long-term transportation bill by the end of July, they will likely have to settle for another short-term patch.
Wytkind and other transportation advocates have complained that temporary extensions prevent state and local governments from completing badly needed long-term infrastructure projects.
“Expansion of these vital investments will not happen until leaders in Congress and President Obama build upon the foundation created by the EPW Committee’s markup, and find the billions in new money needed to address the severe backlog in surface transportation investments,” he said.
“This is no way to run a federal transportation program — especially not one that was launched in the 1950s and expanded for decades under both Republican and Democratic control,” Wytkind continued. “Absent a game-changing strategy that features a legitimate, bipartisan pay-for such as a fuel user-fee increase, however, our surface transportation system will continue to fall apart, thus undermining economic and job growth.”
The Senate’s transportation measure, known as the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act, calls for appropriating nearly $43 billion per year to the federal government’s highway program until 2021 — but only if lawmakers can come up with a way to supplement the gas tax to pay for it.
The sponsors of the spending plan that was approved by the Senate committee on Tuesday have said they are deferring to appropriators in the chamber to work out the details of the financing.
The measure recommends spending $42.9 billion per year on the Federal-Aid Highway Program.
The plan also includes $675 million per year for the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which allows states to apply for federally backed, low-interest loans to help pay for large construction programs.
The measure also includes approximately $240 million per year for the National Park Service and about $1.3 billion per year for federal lands and tribal transportation programs.
The Obama administration has proposed a $478 billion transportation bill that it says would cover six years worth of infrastructure projects. The administration has proposed paying for the measure by taxing corporate profits that are stored overseas through a process that is known as “repatriation.”
Republicans have said they are open to the repatriation idea, but they have questioned the Obama administration’s plan to institute a 14-percent tax rate and make the payments mandatory instead of voluntary.