Former DOT chiefs push for more road funding

Zach Krahmer

A bipartisan group of 12 current and former U.S. transportation secretaries is urging Congress to approve a long-term infrastructure funding bill to improve the nation's road and public transit systems.

The secretaries, who served under presidents Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, said a temporary transportation funding bill that is being considered by Congress is insufficient.

"This week, it appears that Congress will act to stave off the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. The bill, if passed, should extend surface transportation funding until next May," the secretaries wrote to lawmakers.

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"We are hopeful that Congress appears willing to avert the immediate crisis," the letter continued. "But we want to be clear: This bill will not “fix” America’s transportation system. For that, we need a much larger and longer-term investment.  On this, all twelve of us agree."

The letter was signed by current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and former Secretaries Ray LaHood, Mary Peters, Norman Mineta, Rodney Slater, Frederico Peña, Samuel Skinner, Andrew Card, James Burnley, Elizabeth Dole, William Coleman and Alan Boyd.

The letter was released as the Senate is expected to act soon on a $10.9 billion bill that would extend federal transportation funding until May 2015 that was approved last week by the House.

Lawmakers have been struggling with a way to pay for a long-term transportation bill for the better part of a decade.

The last transportation funding package that lasted more than two years that was approved by Congress was passed in 2005.

The current transportation funding legislation, which is set to expire in September, is a two-year, $109 billion bill that was passed in 2012.

The measure was intended to bankroll the Highway Trust Fund through the end of the 2014 fiscal year, which runs until Sept. 30. The transportation department has warned lawmakers in recent months that the trust fund would run out of money in August, however.

The usual source for funding transportation projects is revenue that is collected from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not be increased since 1993, however, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient in recent years.

The transportation bill that is expiring this year includes about $50 billion per year in road and transit spending, which infrastructure advocates say is the bare minimum that can be spent to maintain the current level of the nation's highways and bridges.

However, the gas tax brings only about $34 billion per year at its current rate, which some conservative groups have argued should be the maximum amount that is spent by lawmakers on transportation projects to avoid taking money from other areas of the federal budget to supplement the Highway Trust Fund.

The Obama administration has been suggesting that lawmakers use about $150 billion from closing corporate tax loopholes to help pay for a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill. Congress has resisted the proposal, focusing instead on a temporary patch that is funding by revenue from pension changes and custom fee increases.

The current and former DOT chiefs decried the temporary approach to transportation funding in recent years.

"Never in our nation’s history has America’s transportation system been on a more unsustainable course," the  transportation department leaders wrote.

"In recent years, Congress has largely funded transportation in fits and starts," the letter continued. "Federal funding bills once sustained our transportation system for up to six years, but over the past five years, Congress has passed 27 short-term measures.

"Today, we are more than a decade past the last six-year funding measure. This is no way to run a railroad, fill a pothole, or repair a bridge. In fact, the unpredictability about when, or if, funding will come has caused states to delay or cancel projects altogether."

The transportation secretaries touted their bipartisan agreement and familiarity with transportation funding debates in Washington.

"Taken together, we have led the U.S. Department of Transportation for over 35 years," the secretaries wrote. "One of us was there on day one, at its founding. Suffice it to say, we’ve been around the block.  We probably helped pave it.

"While we – the twelve transportation secretaries – may differ on the details of these [funding] proposals, there is one essential goal with which all twelve of us agree:  We cannot continue funding our transportation with measures that are short-term and short of the funding we need," the secretaries continued. "On this, we are of one mind. And Congress should be, too."