Obama Ally Breaks With White House on Timing of New Transport Bill

Sen. Dick Durbin (IL), the No. 2 Democratic leader in the upper chamber of Congress and a close ally of the president, broke with the White House yesterday and called for a new long-term transportation bill to pass by early next year -- not after the Obama administration's preferred 18-month delay.

125173_004_0489F080.jpgIllinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D), at right of President Obama, who was then the state's junior senator. (Photo: Brittanica)

Durbin's remarks came at the Tri-State Development Summit, a gathering of midwestern business and political leaders. The Herald Whig of Quincy, Illinois, had the story -- and took note of Durbin's candor on the need for a gas tax increase to fund the upcoming legislation:

We have to pay for it, and paying for it may mean an increase in the federal gas tax. Nobody wants to say those words. I've said them to you because unless we're honest about this, we're not going to see an (adequate) federal highway bill," Durbin said ...

Durbin told reporters that a consensus must be reached between business, labor and community leaders to support a fuel tax increase "to stimulate new job creation in America."

The transportation plan was set to expire Oct. 1, but it has gotten a one-month extension at the current funding level. House Transportation Chairman U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., wants to nearly double the size to $500 billion to catch up on crumbling infrastructure, but White House officials have suggested they want to delay work on the bill for 18 months.

Durbin said he wants to see Congress pass the bill by early next year.

Could Durbin's acknowledgment of the tough choices ahead help push the administration to accept a shorter postponement of the next transportation bill -- say, 6 months or a year, as Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) has suggested? The answer may well depend on how the White House responds to pressure from Republicans, as well as some Democrats, to enact more economic recovery legislation in the wake of continued job losses.

If a second shot of stimulus finds favor, it's more likely to come in the form of extra infrastructure spending than as another large, stand-alone bill. Of course, there's no guarantee that such extra spending would be balanced between transit and highways, especially considering the lopsided affair that was the first stimulus.

But Durbin's talk of a gas tax increase obscures an even more uncomfortable truth: a simple hike in the per-gallon levy is probably not enough to sufficiently fund the next transport bill, given that Americans are driving less in more fuel-efficient vehicles.

A study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) [PDF] found that a 10-cent increase in the gas tax, coupled with indexing it to inflation, could be expected to raise $90.5 billion over the next five years. Coupled with an estimated $255 billion that is expected to come from the existing gas tax, that leaves a gap of $105.5 billion between available financing and House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar's (D-MN) new proposal.