Boxer to GOP: Focus on highway bill, not Keystone

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Newly-installed Republican leaders in the Senate should focus on approving a new transportation funding bill instead of pushing for passage of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerFeds weigh whether carbon pollution should be measured in highway performance Juan Williams: Dems should not take Latinos for granted Reid faces Sanders supporters' fury at DNC MORE (D-Calif.) said Wednesday. 

Republicans, who took control of the upper chamber on Tuesday, have identified the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline as a top priority in the early months of the majority they won in last year’s elections. 

Boxer, who was the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee before the GOP takeover, said Wednesday that Republicans were ignoring transportation funding, which she said should be a big priority for the upper chamber’s new leaders. 

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“It is a puzzle to me that after a deep recession, Republicans turn to legislation that according to the State Department will only create 35 permanent jobs,” Boxer said in a statement.  “Instead, Republican leadership should immediately take up the highway bill which supports millions of jobs and will run out of funding in four short months.”

The current measure for funding federal transportation projects is scheduled to expire in May. Lawmakers have struggled to come up with a way to pay for a longer round of infrastructure projects, despite pressure from Boxer and other transportation advocates. 

The traditional source of funding for transportation projects has been revenue that is collected by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax.  The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and it has struggled to keep pace with rising construction costs in recent years as cars have become more fuel efficient. 

The transportation bill that is scheduled to expire in May includes approximately $50 billion worth of spending on road and transit projects, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion per year at its current rate. 

Lawmakers have elected to use money from other areas of the federal budget to close the gap in lieu of asking drivers to pay more at the pump, though transportation advocates have pointed to falling gas prices as an incentive to consider increasing the tax now. 

 

Conservative groups have pushed back on efforts to increase the gas tax while prices at the pump are down, however, arguing that drivers should be allowed to pocket the savings they are experiencing now when they fill up their tanks. 

Boxer has said she is in favor of proposals to replace the gas tax with a wholesale levy on oil retailers, which states like Virginia have turned to as progress on a long-term federal transportation bill has stalled in Washington. 

Congress had a chance to pass a multi-year transportation funding package last year, but lawmakers could not agree on a way to pay for more than a couple of months’ worth of projects, resulting in a temporary extension that lasts only until May 2015.

The nearly $11 billion measure, which reauthorized the collection of the gas tax but did not increase it, was intended only to prevent a bankruptcy in the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund.

The trust fund had been scheduled to run out of money in September without congressional action.

Advocates had suggested that the recently completed lame-duck session would have been the best time for lawmakers to raise the gas tax, because it would be more politically viable. However, lawmakers showed little appetite for tackling the proposed hike before they wrapped up the 113th Congress. 

Boxer said Wednesday that while she is in favor of increasing transportation spending, she is still staunchly opposed to idea passing legislation to force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which has drawn a veto threat from President Obama. 

“The President should only sign bills that are good for America, but the Keystone tar sands pipeline does nothing for our country and everything for Canada,” Boxer said of the controversial oil pipeline.  “In addition, reports show the pipeline project will increase the price of gas, while the tar sands flowing through the pipeline will result in pollution that causes serious illnesses like asthma and increases in carbon pollution – the main cause of climate change.”