Transportation chief sees 'moment' for highway bill

Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxDriverless cars are coming, the federal government must act Five takeaways from the new driverless car guidelines White House rolls out guidelines for self-driving cars MORE said Wednesday Congress is at a "moment" where lawmakers can reach an agreement on a long-term infrastructure funding measure this year.

"I think there is a moment that is shaping up here for something good can happen," Foxx said during a speech to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in Washington. 

"It needs to be a long-term bill that really meets the needs of a growing 21st America," he continued. 

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Foxx was speaking to the state transportation officials as lawmakers in the Senate were holding a hearing on Wednesday about the possibility of renewing the nearly $11 billion infrastructure funding package that was approved by Congress last summer. 

The Transportation chief told the group that it is imperative that they convince their local lawmakers of the importance of passing a longer extension that the eight-month measure that was approved last July.  

"I can't help you if Congress doesn't act," Foxx told the group that was gathered in Washington for their annual legislative conference. 

"If I can't help you, you can't help yourself, and the citizens of of our country are going to be stuck in traffic," he continued. 

The federal government typically spends approximately $50 billion per year in infrastructure spending. The funding was set to run out last September before Congress passed the temporary patch that is now scheduled to expire on May 31 of this year. 

Lawmakers have struggled to come up with a way to pay for a transportation funding extension beyond the revenue that is collected by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. 

The gas tax has been the traditional source of transportation funding since the 1930's, but it has not been increased since 1993. It has struggled to keep pace with construction costs, as cars have become more fuel efficient. 

The gas tax only brings around $34 billion annually at its current level, leaving lawmakers with a $16 billion per year infrastructure funding hole to fill. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the gap in recent years, but Foxx said Wednesday that Congress should do more than just plug the hole when they address transportation funding later this spring. 

"For all the talk about the Highway Trust Fund and trying to stabilize it and get it solvent again, if we're just focused on that, we're not focused on results," he said. 

"CBO has done work to establish that just getting the Highway Trust Fund back to last year's levels will not do the trick in terms of getting us the maintenance we need," he continued. "And if we're just focused on maintenance, that's not helping us address the new capacity we need."

Foxx said lawmakers should focus on passing a long-term transportation funding measure instead of settling for another temporary patch because they are going to have to endure the political pain of increasing government spending on road and transit projects this year no matter how what they do.  

"Frankly, because the pay-for is going to be such a difficult issue for Congress to deal with, as it has been in the past, I think we all ought to go together and say if you're going to go through the brain damage of trying to figure out how to do a little something, make it count," he said. "Let's make it count in 2015. The truth is a hard medicine."   

Foxx is scheduled to testify before the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday about the Transportation Department's funding, which is handled in a separate piece of legislation than the one that covers most federal infrastructure projects.