Transportation groups fear plans for infrastructure might dead-end

Transportation groups have much to like in President Obama’s budget request for infrastructure improvements but fear the spending plan might not get off the ground in Congress. 

In his budget proposal, released Monday, the president laid out a six-year, $556 billion surface reauthorization plan that would provide funding for the nation’s roads, ports and bridges. 

ADVERTISEMENT
In order to jumpstart infrastructure improvements, the plan is front-loaded with $50 billion in funding for fiscal 2012.

The plan has won plaudits from transportation advocates who have long been waiting for the White House to act on the president’s words of support for infrastructure improvements. 

“We think there needs to be movement on a six-year reauthorization bill,” said Brian Deery, senior director of the highway and transportation division at the Associated General Contractors of America. “We think the president has made a good first start on restarting that debate with this budget proposal. We need to get serious about the reauthorization.”

But while big on funding, the plan does not specify how it will be paid for. That omission has not gone unnoticed among those lobbying for more government funds.

“That is the big banana here: How are you going to pay for it?” Deery said. “Coming up with a big spending program is easy. How [you are] going to pay for it is more difficult.”

During the last Congress, the Obama administration helped stall movement on a similar transportation plan by then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.). The White House nixed talk of raising the gas tax to help pay for new federal transportation spending, citing concerns over the struggling economy.

But since Labor Day, Obama has become more vocal about his support for rebuilding infrastructure, making it a key theme in his State of the Union address. And while a Republican-led House is eyeing every federal program for spending cuts, the administration’s budget proposal shows that it believes infrastructure should remain untouched.

The transportation lobby has long supported many of the other items in Obama’s 2012 budget request. Under the proposal, for example, the government would continue to invest in modernization of the air traffic control system and spend $53 billion over six years on high-speed rail. The government would also make a $30 billion down payment on a new national infrastructure bank.

“The money is right,” said Jack Basso, director of program finance and management for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

But lobbyists see trouble for all of the proposals on Capitol Hill. A gas tax increase would likely face opposition from both parties, though it could serve as a short-term fix for the plan’s funding problem.

“The gas tax is probably the quickest and most efficient way you could raise revenue,” Basso said.

Support for more infrastructure spending cuts across traditional rivalries of business and labor in Washington. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka will testify before Congress on Wednesday in support of government funding for roads and highways.

The Chamber has even lent its weight to a gas-tax increase to help fund those improvements.

Unions will also likely mobilize behind the Obama transportation plan.

“We think this is a sign that he does really get it,” said David Miller, a spokesman for the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), an AFL-CIO member. “This is the exact kind of investment that is needed to get people working again and make some desperately needed repairs to our crumbling roads and bridges.”

Miller said his union’s members would aggressively lobby for infrastructure spending this year. LIUNA also is not opposed to any financing plan to pay for the plan.

“Our take on this is this is a crisis. We think every option should be on the table, whether that’s tolls, an infrastructure bank, and yes, a gas-tax increase,” said Miller of LIUNA. “We are not wedded to any particular financing plan for this.”

But several lobbyists said the White House should have stated more clearly in its budget proposal how to pay for the infrastructure plan. John Cline, a partner at the c2 Group who lobbies for several major transit systems, like Los Angeles and Houston, said Washington is waiting for someone else to decide how to pay for new transportation spending.

“Somebody needs to lead on this issue. I feel that everyone is looking over their shoulder at everyone else,” Cline said.