U.S. to unveil revamped highway bill
Washington — Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says the Obama administration will unveil a revised “new and improved” multi-year funding bill to fix the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.
In April, Foxx unveiled a four-year, $302 billion surface transportation bill that would use revenue from corporate tax reform rather than higher gas taxes. It would provide an additional $87 billion to fix bridges and transit systems. In the months that followed, Congress decided it didn't have time to find a long-term fix.
“We must do something dramatic — to hell with the politics,” Foxx told the Senate Environment and Public Works at a hearing on Wednesday. He said a fix needs to be found sooner since states may delay some summer road repairs before May if they don’t have a clear sign that the funding will be there. “We need to invest morel,” Foxx said. “The public has gotten used to a deteriorating system.”
Foxx said motorists are being forced to make more car repairs because of poor roads. Foxx called it “vital for the country” that Congress approve a long-term hike in highway fixes. He’s visited 41 states over the last year to make the case for a bigger boost in infrastructure funding.
The chairman of the committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla, said he doesn’t know how to pay for the added highway fixes. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said Republicans and Democrats need to find common ground and “cut to the chase.”
Vitter said a gas tax increase is “only realistic” if Congress approves a tax credit so middle class and lower income people don’t see their overall federal taxes rise. The other options are using the proceeds by giving incentives to businesses to repatriate revenue from foreign operations or allowing additional oil production on U.S. lands to provide additional revenue for highways.
Congress opted last year not to pass a long-term highway bill, and instead pass a 10-month short-term extension at flat spending levels. Congress has approved 32 short term funding increases in the last six years, rather than raise gas taxes or find a new source of revenue. Congress added about $70 billion to the highway trust fund to make up the growing shortfalls.
Americans are driving more fuel efficient cars and driving less, and, as a result, the federal 18.4 cent tax on gasoline — which hasn't been hiked in nearly two decades — isn’t bringing in enough revenue to fix the nation's crumbling roads. A separate 24.4 cent tax on diesel fuel also funds road repairs.
The Center for American Progress notes that nationwide there are 117,000 active highway and public transportation projects and 700,000 workers rely on funding from the Highway Trust Fund. The fund last year was running about $15 billion short per year on funds over what it raises in gas tax revenue, but Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the fund is now forecast to run about $13 billion behind annually over the next six years.
“This is awful,” Boxer said. “We have failed to give any certainty” to states. “This is a disaster.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said the “elephant in the room” is “how do we afford all of this?” She said “we really can get this done.”
Foxx also said that he wants to make sure that smaller communities that can’t afford “fancy consultants” can win competitive TIGER grants used to fund infrastructure programs.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said Garden state residents are spending over $2,000 a year because of poor road conditions resulting in higher congestion, car repairs and lost productivity. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., lamented Congress’ unwillingness “to pay for things we need.” He suggested a vehicle miles-traveled fee is another idea.
The $302 billion highway bill unveiled by the White House last year would also have hiked maximum fines to $300 million for automakers who fail to recall vehicles in a timely fashion over the current limit of $35 million.
Foxx also wants to force rental car companies to repair recalled vehicles before they are rented again. NHTSA would get new authority to get unsafe vehicles off the roads quickly it deems an “imminent hazard.” Currently, NHTSA must go through a two-step process of initial investigation and then engineering analysis before it then must hold an administrative hearing to compel a recall. Then it must go to court to enforce the order.
President Barack Obama will unveil his new budget proposal on Monday that is expected to include a funding hike for NHTSA.