Rhetoric a major roadblock to transportation policy

In his annual set piece State of the Union address last week the president acquitted himself admirably – well, except for neglecting to engage on the issues of deficits, debt and the changing demographics of America.

Barack Obama did use his State of the Union address to renew his call for increased infrastructure spending. In the speech, the president proposed increasing infrastructure spending and paying for it with half of the savings from the troop draw-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan. This proposal will add about $500 billion to infrastructure spending over the next 10 years, based on estimates included in the president’s fall deficit-reduction plan. (Of course, the president did not explain his claim that reprogramming future borrowed funds once designated to finance the wars could be counted as “savings”). According to the Congressional Budget office, that much spending could, thanks to the multiplier effect, spur the economy by more than a trillion dollars, while giving the nation’s workforce a helping hand.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that an investment of $1.7 trillion is needed between now and 2020 to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the end of their planned life cycles. In fact, in its most recent report card for America’s infrastructure, ASCE gave the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D.

Obviously, this crowd is not impressed by grade inflation!

Many of these infrastructure funding issues can be addressed if Congress, with aggressive presidential leadership, enacts the multi-year, surface transportation reauthorization legislation. This measure has been extended eight times since the law expired on Sept. 30, 2009. The current extension expires March 31. Establishing certainty for long-term funding is critical to highway and transit planners in developing, financing and constructing long-term capital projects.

Currently, the House of Representatives and the Senate are working to complete the legislative language for their reauthorization plan. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released its transportation bill this week. This legislation will fund transit and highway programs at $52 billion annually, or $260 billion over five years. Additionally, the House committee will provide vital flexibility to the states in developing and financing their own transportation needs and to encourage the use of public-private partnerships.

In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee announced that it will hold mark up sessions this week on its version of the legislation. The Senate bill is for two years and for $109 billion.

Neither bill addresses a fundamental issue: the highway trust fund is now in deficit and dependent on general revenue because of reduced growth in federal fuel tax revenues. Of course, Congress and the president have no appetite to raise the federal fuel tax of 18.3 cents per gallon that was last increased in 1993.

We all know that greater fuel efficiency results in lower gas-tax proceeds and, therefore, a shrinking trust fund. Ironically , the president’s secretary of transportation , Ray LaHood , has said he does not expect the debate on a multi-year transportation bill to be resolved this year because it is an election year and the differences between the Senate and House bills are too large to be resolved.

Even as both the House and the Senate bills are far smaller than what is needed just to maintain current levels of inflation-adjusted spending, we need to have a transportation bill to minimize the uncertainty that is stalling our economic recovery. The president cannot continue to just make easy lay-up speeches on the need for greater infrastructure spending and post up against the congressional leaders to get a bill passed before March 31. It’s time to match up his rhetoric one-on-one with reality and take the point on getting this badly needed legislation passed.

originally published: February 21, 2012