Administration urges long-term highway bill

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau
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Washington – Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urged Congress to take action on a long-term highway funding bill. He called the latest standoff a "crisis" for the country and warned the administration may not go along with another short-term extension.

"We've got some problems. I would label it a crisis — a legitimate, disturbing and alarming crisis in our infrastructure system," Foxx told a small group of reporters at the department's headquarters Wednesday. "We are reaching a serious, serious crisis…. The patience level is running low."

Foxx threw a bunch of Band-Aids on the table as he left, a symbol of the repeated failures to pass a long term highway bill. "Feels like Groundhog Day," he said.

The current highway funding bill runs out July 31. Foxx said the administration will begin notifying states about the threat to funding if Congress doesn't approve funding — and how it will slow funding to states if Congress doesn't pass an extension.

"The system is falling apart," Foxx said, declining to say under what conditions he would recommend a veto of a short-term extension. But he said the series of short-term extensions are "damaging the system."

Foxx said it is "critical to "break the cycle" of short term highway funding bills. "Unless there is a purpose" – a "real core framework" toward a long-term answer about a long term highway bill, he said it would only prolong the current cycle. "A one-month, a five-month extension –the country can't build months at a time," Foxx said.

In February, the Obama administration unveiled a $478 billion, six-year surface transportation bill. Over the last six years, Congress has approved 34 short-term funding patches, adding $63 billion to the highway trust fund that has traditionally been funded with gas taxes — most recently a temporary extension of spending authority in May.

Senate Republicans are looking for about $90 billion over six years, but Foxx says that may not be enough.

President Barack Obama and some Democrats want to use the proceeds of corporate tax reform to pay for a big boost in road repairs. The push for tax reform is because the traditional source of revenue is declining. From 1956 until 1993, Congress regularly increased gas taxes from an initial 3 cents a gallon to the current 18.4 cents. Had the gas tax been adjusted for inflation, it would be 30 cents a gallon today.

Foxx says the United States needs at least $15 billion to $20 billion a year over the current baseline funding in order to prevent further deterioration in the nation's crumbling infrastructure. "Our transportation system is falling apart," Foxx said.

The administration is releasing Thursday a state-by-state fact sheet that notes that 3,018 out of 11,022 bridges in Michigan are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. It says the costs of extra vehicle repairs in the state because of poor roads are $2.5 billion, or $357 per motorist. The Transportation Department says 38 percent of Michigan's roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

Michigan's federal funding for highways has stagnated at a little more than $1 billion annually since 2010.

Foxx praised efforts by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to find revenue through international tax reform to fund road repairs, saying it is "in the same ZIP code as our proposal." But he hopes that Congress "gets more ambitious" and finds more funding for road repairs.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed hesitation about using tax reform for highway repairs and he also ruled out a gas tax increase to pay for funding increases.

Less than 30 percent of the current Congress were in office when the legislature voted for a six-year highway funding bill.

"We need to work hard to break the cycle," Foxx said. "The planning pipeline is slowing to a trickle"

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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