Unions: Obama ‘right’ to push for long-term highway bill

Unions: Obama ‘right’ to push for long-term highway bill
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The AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD) said Wednesday that President Obama is “right” to push lawmakers to pass a long-term infrastructure funding measure. 

White House officials sent a six-year, $478 billion transportation bill to Congress on Monday as lawmakers are scrambling to beat a May 31 deadline for the expiration of current government road and transit spending. 

AFL-CIO TTD President Ed Wytkind said the administration’s proposal will “re-energize” the debate about an extension of the transportation funding as the deadline continues to loom. 

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“With spring construction season beginning — and with state and local governments already canceling construction projects in the face of funding uncertainty — TTD and our affiliates are pleased that the Obama administration has looked beyond short-term patches and proposed a six-year, $478 billion transit/highway bill that would make it possible for America to build out, repair, and modernize our transit and highway network,” Wytkind wrote in a blog post on the union’s website. 

“The bill, an update of the Grow America Act the administration proposed last year, would increase annual surface transportation funding by nearly $25 billion,” Wytkind continued. “This long-overdue down payment for our surface transportation system would help boost the economy, create jobs, and move our transportation system into the future. Notably, the proposal would substantially increase transit and highway funding, supporting the millions of Americans who ride transit and travel on our roads.” 

The administration's proposal calls for spending nearly $80 billion per year on boosting the nation's infrastructure, which would be an approximately $30 billion annual increase over the federal government's current level of transportation spending. 

The proposal relies on funding it says can be drawn from taxing corporate overseas profits. The proposal, known as “repatriation,” would require companies to bring back earnings to the United States at a 14 percent tax rate, generating an estimated $238 billion in revenue that could be used to pay for infrastructure improvements. 

The measure is intended to address a transportation funding shortfall estimated at about $16 billion per year. 

The traditional source of transportation funding has been the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax that was established in the 1930s. The tax has not been increased since 1993, and improvements in car fuel efficiency have greatly sapped its purchasing power in recent years. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in $34 billion.

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the gap, but transportation advocates said the patches make it difficult for states to plan long-term construction projects that are badly needed.

Wytkind said Wednesday that he would have preferred to see the Obama administration include a more sustainable long-term source of infrastructure funding than the one-time repatriation proposal, but he said any long-term funding measure would be better than another temporary patch. 

“I know that the administration’s proposal got a collective eye roll from many in Washington for the political viability of such an ambitious plan. And quite frankly, we continue to believe that our surface transportation system needs a sustainable funding stream not tied to one-time corporate tax reform efforts,” he wrote. “But the administration is right to push for funding levels that will begin to reverse the years of neglect that have clogged our arteries of commerce and sidelined good-paying jobs.” 

Wytkind and other transportation advocates have pushed for a gas tax increase to solve the infrastructure funding problem, but lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump.

Conservative groups say they would consider a gas tax hike a tax increase, and most Republicans oppose it.

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