Transportation watchers not looking for much talk during presidential debate

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"The only thing I can think of it is the president may say we need more infrastructure investment generally, but it'll be as job creator," Glendenning continued. "[But] the likelihood that anyone is going to stand up and say 'we've got to get serious about funding transit in this country' [or] that our roads and bridges are falling apart ... I'll spill the whole bottle."  

Joshua Schank, president of the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation, offered a similar assessment of transportation's prospects for the 90-minute talk fest between the presidential candidates Wednesday evening.

"Given the focus will be on domestic policy, the president will likely make some appeal for greater infrastructure investment," Schank said in an interview with The Hill.

"You may even see some agreement [from Republican nominee Romney]," he continued. "But it's kind of meaningless, because neither one of them is going to say how they would pay for it."

Schank said Obama and Romney would be continuing a trend that began in Congress if they did not talk about future solutions to transportation funding challenges.   

"There's been no evidence that anybody in Washington wants to address this issue in a serious way," he said. "You can't be against infrastructure investment, but nobody is going to stand up and say 'raise my gas taxes.' "
 
Lawmakers passed a $105 billion bill earlier this year to extend transportation funding for the next two years, but they did identify a new consistent source of revenue for road and transit projects. Advocates have warned that the traditional source of money for highway spending, the federal gas tax, does not bring in enough money to cover the costs of maintaining the current U.S. transportation system, let alone expand it.

The 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax brings in about $36 billion a year. Lawmakers used a package that closed tax loopholes, increased fees and made transfers among trust funds to cover the shortfall through 2014. There has not been much talk about what to do after that, however.

Schank said there might be some transportation talk in Wednesday's high-profile presidential debate, but he said whether it will satisfy advocates "depends on how you define transportation issues."

"Does the auto bailout count?" he said, referring to the $80 billion in loans to the U.S. auto industry that has emerged as a flashpoint between Obama and Romney.  

Otherwise, however, Schank said he doesn't expect any "substantive discussion" about transportation from the president and his challenger.

Romney and Obama are scheduled to begin their debate Wednesday at 9 p.m., which PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer moderating. The duo will face off two other times during the month of October, and vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will debate once as well.