Advocates cheer SOTU infrastructure focus

Advocates cheer SOTU infrastructure focus
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Transportation advocates in Washington cheered President Obama’s focus on increasing U.S. infrastructure during his sixth State of the Union address on Tuesday night. 

Obama called for Congress to pass a “bipartisan infrastructure plan,” although he stopped short of calling for an increase in the federal gas tax that has been sought by many transportation advocates to help pay for it. 

Groups that lobby for boosting transportation spending said after the speech that it was good to hear the president lay out the case for a new round of funding with the current road and transit bill set to expire in May. 

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"The state of our nation’s transportation infrastructure is deteriorating, and without significant investment it will only worsen,” AAA Auto Club President CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement. “President Obama has outlined numerous legislative priorities tonight, but a key part of our overall economic success will depend on a reliable transport network to get people to school and new products to factories and stores.”   

AAA and other transportation advocates have pushed for an increase in the 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax to help pay for infrastructure projects for years, and the idea has picked up some steam on Capitol Hill, as gas prices have declined sharply in recent months. 

Obama stuck to his previous proposals of closing corporate tax loopholes to pay for transportation projects in his speech on Tuesday night, however. 

“Let’s close [tax] loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America,” he said. “Let’s use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home.”

Obama’s corporate tax reform proposals have gone nowhere on Capitol Hill, but he pitched them as a solution to a transportation funding shortfall that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year as gas tax revenues struggle to keep pace with more fuel efficient cars. 

Darblenet offered tepid support for Obama’s plan, but he increasing the gas tax would be a better long-term solution to the transportation funding shortfall. 

"The President’s proposal to leverage corporate tax reform or private investment structures to support transportation funding would provide a welcome shot in the arm for our nation's infrastructure, but this will not provide a sustainable fix to the looming funding crisis at hand,” he said. 

"We have a tremendous opportunity with gas prices hitting multi-year lows to invest a portion of these savings to properly fund our transportation system,” Darblenet continued. “The user fee for gasoline — often called the gas tax — has not increased in more than two decades, yet long-overdue action to restore funding lost to inflation is finally gaining interest on Capitol Hill. AAA continues to advocate for an increase to this user fee as the most effective and efficient way to fund our transportation system, provided the money is used to ease congestion and improve safety.” 

The gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993, brings in about $34 billion per year. The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on road and transit projects, and transportation advocates have maintained that the larger figure is only enough to maintain the current state of the U.S. infrastructure network. 

Major road and transit improvements will require a higher annual funding level, they argue, which would result in an even higher infrastructure budget without an infusion of cash from a source like the gas tax. 

Obama said Tuesday that he thought bipartisan agreement on transportation funding was possible, although he steered clear of the debate about raising the gas tax. 

“The truth is, when it comes to issues like infrastructure and basic research, I know there’s bipartisan support in this chamber,” Obama said. “Members of both parties have told me so. Where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments."  

Other transportation groups in Washington said they agreed with Obama’s stance that transportation funding should be an early area of consensus for Democrats and Republicans this year with the GOP in control of both chambers of Congress. 

“Americans want Congress and the President to break the gridlock and work together. As President Obama pointed out, infrastructure is a bipartisan issue,” American Public Transportation Association President Michael Melaniphy said in a statement. “APTA believes that Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground on and move forward to pass a multi-year, multimodal, well-funded surface transportation bill before the May 31 deadline. Congress must also fund the Highway Trust Fund, which includes the Mass Transit Account.” 

Aviation groups were happy with Obama’s remarks about infrastructure too, although the president did not focus specifically on airports, as he has in other big speeches. 

“We appreciate the focus on the need for infrastructure enhancements as part of the State of the Union address,” American Association of Airport Executives President Todd Hauptli said in a statement, ticking off a list of specific items that were left off the 2015 agenda by Obama on Tuesday. 

“For America’s airports, the answer to meeting the needs of today and preparing for the significant challenges of tomorrow lies in modernizing the local Passenger Facility Charge, protecting the federal Airport Improvement Program, and providing permanent relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax penalty for airport bonds,” Hauptli continued. “We will continue to urge lawmakers and the administration to pursue an approach to airport financing that encompasses these important elements.”