DOT chief: Increase, not 'level off,' highway funding

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday that lawmakers should stop focusing on trying to refill the trust fund that pays for road and transit projects.

Instead, Foxx said in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, lawmakers should train their efforts on coming up with a new funding source for transportation projects altogether. 

"For years, our national dialogue has focused on how to get the Highway Trust Fund leveled off," Foxx said. "To translate that into business terms, we’ve been trying to reach the same level of sales revenue and expenditures as the last year instead of growing revenue and expenditures to meet customer demand."

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Foxx said the problems that have lead to an approximately $20 billion annual shortfall in transportation funding will only get worse as the U.S. population increases and cars become even more fuel efficient.

"The plain fact is that the gas tax is spinning off less and less revenue," the Transportation chief said. "Meanwhile, we’re anticipating 100 million new people in the country and 4 billion more tons of international freight to move around America by 2050. Less revenue, more people, more freight, more gridlock. This is not a good formula for success.

"We should stop aiming just to get the Highway Trust Fund level again," he continued. "We should aim to cut into a bigger piece of our infrastructure deficit by investing more — now."

Foxx was speaking at a "Transportation Infrastructure Summit" that was hosted by the Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

The summit was hosted as Congress is debating a renewal of the 2012 surface transportation bill that is scheduled to expire in September. The measure is traditionally funded by money from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax, but the expiring version contained nearly $20 billion in annual infrastructure spending than the approximately $34 billion per year that is brought in by the gas tax. 

The chamber has pushed Congress to increase the gas tax for the first time since 1993, joining with labor groups in a rare show of agreement.

Foxx did not specifically endorse the proposal to increase the gas tax, but he said the Chamber of Commerce's President Tom Donohue had "guts" for suggesting it to Congress during a recent hearing.

"Your president, Tom Donohue, went up to the Hill last week and told Congress what a lot of people in this town don’t have the guts to tell Congress — that it was time to show a little courage," Foxx said.

Republicans have criticized Foxx, as well as his predecessor, Ray LaHood, for calling for increasing transportation funding without offering specific ideas for providing the revenue, as Donohue told lawmakers last week raising the gas tax would do. 

Foxx said he and President Obama believe enough money can be found to pay for more transportation funding through tax reform, but he said he was also open to other ideas like Donahue's gas tax proposal.

"Now, at DOT we happen to believe that we could pay for infrastructure with the savings from tax reform," Foxx said. "But I would much rather see a national debate about how — rather than whether — we're going to tackle our infrastructure deficit. That's why I’m glad Tom is standing up — we absolutely agree that Congress is going to have to show a little political courage to fix this problem. Their courage increases when core constituencies like all of you tell them it's OK to figure this out. It's actually the fiscally responsible thing to do."

Foxx told his audience at the Chamber that it was important for Congress to not simply reauthorize the current transportation bill, which is known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21).

"We have a surface transportation bill that will expire, and we need to go further than technical corrections to MAP-21, we need a bill that reshapes the transportation landscape for the 21st Century, building on MAP-21 but going further."

The expiring transportation bill was passed by Congress in 2012 after a series of short-term extensions of the prior road and transit funding package was scheduled to expire in 2009.

MAP-21 was shorter than most federal transportation bills have been. Congress used money from other areas of the federal budget to close the gap between gas tax revenue and the amount of infrastructure spending that was deemed necessary in 2012, but lawmakers were only able to cobble together enough funding for two years, instead of the five or six years that have historically been the duration of federal transportation bills.

Transportation advocates have pushed to return to a longer measure this year, arguing that a five- or six-year bill would provide certainty to state and local governments that plan their infrastructure projects based on the possibility of receiving federal money to help with high costs.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected that it will require $100 billion in addition to the $34 billion that is brought in annually by the gas tax to enact a six-year transportation bill this year.