Mayors press Congress to pass highway bill

Think Stock

The U.S. Conference of Mayors is urging Congress to pass legislation to prevent a shutdown in transportation funding this summer. 

Lawmakers are struggling to come up with a way to pay for an extension of the current transportation funding measure, which is scheduled to expire in May. 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said it was time for Congress to end the uncertainty about the availability of federal transportation funding. 

"The status quo is simply unacceptable," said de Blasio, who is also the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Cities of Opportunity Task Force.

"It's time for Congress to truly invest in the future of our cities and our nation by passing a bill that increases federal transportation funding," de Blasio continued. "And we'll be making that clear ‎with direct action in our cities and in Washington."

The looming transportation funding has been a source of consternation in Washington. Lawmakers in both parties say they want to prevent an interruption in transportation funding to states, but consensus on how to pay for an extension of the spending has been elusive.

The 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax has been the main source of federal transportation funding since the 1930s but it has not been increased since 1993. Revenue has also been sapped in recent years by improvements in auto fuel efficiency. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings $34 billion annually at its current rate. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the $16 billion gap. 

Transportation advocates have pushed for an increase in the gas tax to make up the difference, but lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump to help pay for road projects. 

Conservative groups have meanwhile pushed to eliminate the gas tax and turn responsibility for construction projects over to states. They warn that otherwise the infrastructure deficit will continue to grow. 

The Conference of Mayors said it was important for Congress to resolve the debate about the future of transportation funding quickly. 

“As we look to Congress, we renew our call for stronger federal resource commitments, with more emphasis on locally-directed funding, to improve our transit and street systems to better serve our growing metropolitan areas and confront income inequality," said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), who is also Vice-President of the Conference of Mayors. 

"We cannot let the federal government off the hook in supporting us in meeting these critical challenges," Rawlings-Blake continued. 

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (D) agreed, saying cities rely on federal support for long-term transportation projects. 

“In Seattle, we’ve led the way on raising the minimum wage, expanding local transit and access to pre-k," he said. "While cities are acting now, we can’t do it alone. It’s time for a national urban agenda, one that will repair our country’s aging transportation infrastructure, expand access to affordable housing and address income inequality. We must have a re-energized federal government that is acting as an equal partner to support the great work happening at the local level.”

The Department of Transportation has said that it will have to begin reducing payments to state governments in May if Congress does not reach a deal to extend transportation funding past the end of that month. 

Transportation advocates have said that a shutdown would cost the nation thousands of jobs because May is typically the beginning of the busy summer construction period.