DOT chief pleads to Congress for boost in transportation funding

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Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxTransportation Dept. launches aviation test lab with NASA Overnight Regulation: Drones ready to take flight under new rules White House paves the way for commercial drone use MORE pushed lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House Wednesday to pass a long-term bill to boost U.S. infrastructure funding for the first time in nearly a decade. 

Foxx told members of the House Transportation Committee, “Our country is too great to allow our infrastructure to fall apart.”

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“We must do something,” he said. “At a time when we should be building more, we’re building less. Instead of saying ‘build, build, build,’ Congress has been saying ‘stop.’ ”

Congress has approved only a series of temporary infrastructure funding patches since a 2005 transportation bill expired in 2009, including an $11 billion measure scheduled to expire in May. 

Foxx said Wednesday that the patches do not provide enough money for states and local governments to finance badly needed long-range construction projects, noting the Obama administration has proposed a measure that would spend $478 billion over the next six years on infrastructure.

Noting other transportation supporters like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have proposed as much as $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, he said, “$478 billion sounds like enough to choke a horse, as we say in North Carolina.” 

“But against what we need, it’s not a big number,” Foxx continued. 

The Department of Transportation has said its Highway Trust Fund will run out of money on May 31, barring congressional intervention. The fund, which is used to pay for most infrastructure projects, is filled with revenue from the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. 

The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and has struggled to keep pace with rising construction costs as cars have become more fuel-efficient. 

Foxx prodded lawmakers on Wednesday to look for a more certain way to pay for infrastructure projects this year. 

“The system needs us to not budget to numbers, it needs us to budget to results,” he said. “The Highway Trust Fund balance is a number. It is not an outcome.”

Lawmakers have said that they understand Foxx’s stance on the need to increase infrastructure funding, but they have struggled to come up with a way to pay for such a boost.

“We know our roads, bridges and transit systems have significant needs,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said, noting the transportation bill is a top priority for Republican leaders in the lower chamber this year. 

“We need a long-term bill to provide certainty for states and other non-federal partners to accomplish large projects,” he continued, although he cautioned that any transportation bill would have to remain “fiscally responsible.” 

“A bill that is not fiscally responsible simply will not pass this Congress,” Shuster said.

Lawmakers have introduced a series of bills recently to extend the expiring transportation funding measure, but they have not yet coalesced around a specific funding source for the legislation. The idea of increasing the federal gas tax to help pay for construction projects has been discussed, but many lawmakers are reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump. 

Additional proposals from the White House and lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) rely on the idea of taxing overseas corporate revenue through a process known as “repatriation” to pay for a new round of road projects.  

Shuster, who has come out against increasing the gas tax and for repatriation, said it is possible for lawmakers to come to an agreement on increasing transportation funding this year.

“We’re not going to agree on everything, but transportation is an area where we can find common ground and get something done for America,” he said of his forthcoming negotiations with administration officials.  

Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Transportation Committee who support increasing the gas tax to pay for transportation projects expressed doubts about the viability of the corporate tax proposal on Wednesday, despite Shuster’s openness. 

“We’re not going to see repatriation out of this Congress,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the top ranking Democrat on the panel. “The Republicans don’t support it.” 

Foxx sounded more optimistic. “I’m hearing differently about the possibility of business tax reform,” he said.