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DOT chief: Small highway fixes 'killing our will to build'

DOT chief: Small highway fixes 'killing our will to build'
© Anne Wernikoff

Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxFeds order DC Metro to take new safety actions Emanuel flips the bird when asked about 2020 Feds push for more transparency over in-flight phone calls MORE called Wednesday for lawmakers to pass a multi-year infrastructure funding bill, saying the cycle of temporary extensions is killing states' willingness for road and transit projects.

It has been 10 years since Congress last passed a transportation funding bill of longer than two years.

Foxx said Wednesday during a Senate hearing that enough was enough.

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"Last year we sent Congress a comprehensive multiyear proposal, the GROW AMERICA Act, which included 350 pages of precise policy prescriptions and substantial funding growth, all focused on the future," he said during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about transportation funding issues.  

"What America received in response was a ten-month extension with flat funding, which while averting a catastrophe falls short of meeting the countries needs," Foxx continued. "It was not the first short-term measure, or patch, that has been passed. It was by my count, the 32nd in the last six years. And as a former mayor, I can tell you these short-term measures are doing to America what the state [Department of Transportation] says they're doing in Tennessee, literally killing their will to build."

Foxx took lawmakers to task for approving last year only an eight-month, $11 billion highway bill that is now scheduled to expire in May.

"America is in a race. Not just against our global competitors, but against the high standards of innovation and progress our nation has shown for generations," he said. "We're behind in that race, and when you're behind, you have to run faster and do more than just keep pace."  

The Obama administration proposed a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill that it said could be paid for savings that would be realized by reforming corporate taxes. The tax reform package has gone nowhere on Capital Hill and lawmakers largely ignored the transportation proposal.

Transportation advocates have argued that raising the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax, which has been the traditional source for funding infrastructure projects, would be the easiest way to close the nation's transportation funding shortfall.

The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses in recent years as cars have become more fuel efficient.

The Obama administration has opposed the idea of asking drivers to pay more at the pump to finance transportation projects, as have most Republican leaders in Congress. Transportation advocates believe the Obama administration privately supports the proposal, though Foxx stuck mostly to his corporate tax reform plan on Wednesday.

Lawmakers on the Senate Public Works panel in both parties expressed sympathy for Foxx's position, although they did not endorse his specific transportation funding proposal.

"The significance of this meeting is we want to do it right this time. We've done patchwork," said the panel's new chairman, Sen. Jim InhofeJames Inhofe House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief Fight over water bill heats up in Senate Trump taps Oklahoma attorney general to lead EPA MORE (R-Okla.).

Inhofe said he was been trying to convince Republican lawmakers in both chambers of Congress that it is OK to increase transportation spending.

"The conservative thing is to pass a bill instead of having extensions," he said. "The cost of extensions, we've never calculated it, but I think it's 30 percent right off the top."

Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Boxer House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief Fight over water bill heats up in Senate Dem senator tears up in farewell speech MORE (D-Calif.), the most recent chairwoman of Public Works, agreed wholehearted with Inhofe.

"We are getting perilously close to the bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund May 31," she said. "If you go to the bank and you're going to buy a house, and the bank says 'oh great we'll lend you the money, but only for five months,' you're going to walk away."

Boxer said lawmakers should be helped because the transportation funding shortfall is less now that was previously expected.

"Today I learned from my staff that the deficit in the trust fund is less than we thought it would be," she said. "We were anticipating $18 billion a year over six years, it's $13 billion a year over six years. If we can't find that, I think it's a $1.2 trillion budget for discretionary spending, to build the infrastructure, we have failed as a Congress."

Foxx for his part said he just wanted lawmakers to find a viable long-term solution to the transportation funding shortfall.
 
"The transportation system doesn't care about the political challenges or the funding challenges of addressing its need," Foxx said. "From its perspective, and from mine, we are either meeting its needs or we're not."

"In order for the system to be as good as the American people, we must do something dramatic," the DOT chief continued. "To hell with the politics."