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Boxer and Inhofe Say Transportation Bill Almost Ready, Funding Still TBD

Two leading Washington lawmakers assured reporters Wednesday that a long-term transportation bill is coming, but provided little in the way of details.

Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, respectively, held a press conference Wednesday featuring a line-up of construction and labor leaders demanding “action on transportation.” The event is shown in the above video in its entirety.

Inhofe told reporters a draft six-year bill is almost ready. Just six weeks remain before the current extension of MAP-21 expires, and the Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money in July — potentially threatening the construction season.

A critical hurdle for lawmakers is settling on a funding source to replace the declining gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. Just yesterday a bipartisan group from the House asked Congress to raise it.

But little was said about funding at the press conference. Boxer said while she is supportive, there isn’t much appetite for an increase in taxes on gasoline or crude oil. “I will do almost anything to fill that trust fund,” she said.

Boxer said she would be “dropping a bill” with Rand Paul to generate revenues by “repatriating” overseas profits on U.S. corporations hiding out overseas to avoid taxes.

“I’m hopeful that this type of reform can bring us together and unite us,” she said. The Hill reports lawmakers are divided on whether to make that 5 percent tax on corporate profits overseas voluntary or mandatory. Paul and Boxer say the repatriation tax bill could bring $2 trillion in revenue.

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Ranking the Sad Parade of Federal Transpo Funding Ideas From Worst to Best

The Highway Trust Fund is on a losing trajectory. But no one can agree on how to fix it. Image: Congressional Budget Office via America 2050

America’s transportation funding system is broken, and no one in charge has good ideas about how to fix it.

The problem seems simple enough: The federal transportation program is going broke because Washington has allowed the gas tax to be eroded by inflation for more than 20 years.

As obvious as raising the gas tax may be, America’s political leaders won’t touch it. Yesterday, The Hill reported that Congressman Bill Shuster, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is ruling out a gas tax increase or any additional fees on driving to fund transportation.

Apparently, anything that might make driving a little more expensive is no longer politically palatable. Instead, President Obama and members of Congress have trotted out a series of proposals that range from one-off gimmicks to total fantasies that wouldn’t solve anything.

It can be hard to keep them all straight, so here’s our ranking of ideas to fix federal transportation funding, from worst to best.

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Koch-Funded Groups: Cut All Federal Funding for Walking, Biking, Transit

The Highway Trust Fund is going broke, but a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is "squirrel sanctuaries." Image: Brookings

As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is transit and “squirrel sanctuaries.” Image: Brookings

You know it’s time to fight over the federal transportation bill when the fossil fuel-soaked elements of the conservative movement start agitating to stop funding everything except car infrastructure.

Yesterday, a coalition of 50 groups, several funded by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the small portion that goes to walking, biking, and transit [PDF]. The signatories do not want Congress to even think about raising the gas tax, which has been steadily eaten away by inflation since 1993.

The coalition membership includes many stalwarts of the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and the Club for Growth. The Koch brothers recently went public with plans to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

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Eno: Stop Obsessing Over the Gas Tax and Change How We Fund Transpo

U.S. drivers pay far lower gas taxes than in peer countries. They also get less national transportation investment. Image: Eno

Of these six peer nations, America has the lowest gas tax and is also the only one that uses the gas tax exclusively for transportation spending. Table: Eno Center

Twenty years ago, Japan’s electoral reform redistributed power, giving urban constituencies a greater voice. One result: Japan eliminated its version of the Highway Trust Fund, which urban voters saw as satisfying the interests of the construction lobby, not their own.

If city-dwellers had a greater voice in the United States, would the same thing happen?

The Highway Trust Fund has more problems than just its 1950s-era name. Funded by the federal gas tax, the trust fund is becoming obsolete over time, as efficiency gains and declining miles-traveled sap its size. The Eno Center for Transportation says it’s time to rethink the entire system.

In a new report [PDF], Eno compares the U.S. method of funding transportation to that of five peer countries. Ours is the only one that still pretends to rely on a “user-pay” system. (Yes, pretends: The last six years of constant last-ditch infusions from the general fund, totaling $65 billion, have exposed that particular myth.)

It’s important to note that in all five of the countries examined — Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, and the UK — drivers and truck companies actually pay far more for the use of the roads than they do in the United States. The idea of making people pay to use infrastructure is not the problem — the problem is assuming that those user fees will go to nothing but infrastructure, and that infrastructure will be funded by nothing but user fees.

As the chart above demonstrates, all the countries Eno looked at charged far higher national gas tax rates than the U.S. does. This graphic from The Economist in 2011 shows that a broader cross-section of countries makes the point even more strongly:

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Congress Hits the Snooze Button on Transpo Funding Until May

Someone had to cave and last night, it was the Senate.

Closed for the summer. Photo: ##http://www.capitol.gov/html/EVT_2010061578974.html##Capitol.gov##

Closed for the summer. Photo: Politic365

The upper chamber had fought as long as it could to adjust the House transportation bill so it wouldn’t expire when the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. But senators were never willing to actually let the Highway Trust Fund go broke. U.S. DOT would have started cutting back on reimbursements to state DOTs as of today in the absence of an agreement.

After the House rejected the Senate’s amendment yesterday, hours before representatives were due to return to their home districts for the five-week August recess, it seemed the Senate had no choice. Then, news broke that the House was going to stick around a little longer to keep fighting about the border crisis.

Could the Senate have taken advantage of the House’s presence to toss the football back to them, on the assumption that the last team holding it will get blamed for the fumble? Maybe. Maybe the House would have been the one to cave, then. Maybe they would have sent the transportation industry into a tailspin. In a recent poll, 85 percent of transit agencies said they would implement service cuts if that happened.

At least we were spared that. But perhaps not for long. Former U.S. DOT official Beth Osborne, now at Transportation for America, noted that each extension seems to be getting harder. “The easy ways to pay for the program are gone,” she said. “It’s going to get harder doing this with bubble gum and band-aids.”

Who cares?

Last night on Twitter, Cap’n Transit paid me the backhanded compliment of my life by saying:

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Time’s Up: 6 Things to Know About Today’s Transpo Showdown (UPDATED)

UPDATE 2:40 p.m.: The House has rejected the Senate amendment, as expected.

Today is the House of Representatives’ last day in session before departing for an August recess full of photo ops and electioneering in their districts. The Senate will stick around DC for one more day before going home. Before that happens, the two houses have to come together on a plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund going. If not, U.S. DOT will have to take drastic measures.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Both the House and the Senate have voted on not entirely dissimilar plans to keep the fund going. But the differences between them have set up a high-stakes showdown that has to be resolved by tomorrow.

Here are the key points:

    1. The timing: The House is expected to vote on the Senate bill today at about 3:00 p.m. and is expected to refuse to budge. Then they’ll leave town, meaning the Senate can either cave or be blamed as the Highway Trust Fund goes dry before August recess ends and transportation works grind to a halt. Meanwhile, Sec. Anthony Foxx has warned state DOTs that federal payments will slow down August 1 — that’s tomorrow — if Congress doesn’t take action to keep the Fund from going insolvent.
    2. The numbers: The House is gloating that the Senate’s bill contains a $2 billion technical error — which is true; it comes up with just $6.2 billion of the $8.1 billion needed — but Senate Democrats say it can be easily fixed.
    3. The urgency: Since summer is the high season for construction, the real pressure on the Highway Trust Fund is between now and the end of the year, when states will need to get reimbursed for the work that’s going on now. That’s why there’s not a huge monetary difference between the House proposal that lasts till May and the Senate proposal that ends in December. There’s just not a lot of cash going out the door at U.S. DOT between January and May.
    4. The conflict: The House and Senate disagree on what budget gimmicks to use to “pay for” the transfer into the trust fund, but more fundamentally they disagree about how long the patch should be. As we’ve reported before, Boxer prefers a December deadline, saying it’s unfair for this Congress to fail to fix a problem that occurred on its watch and instead kick it to the next Congress. What she means is that she wants her six-year bill to pass and that won’t happen after the end of this year if the GOP wins a majority in the Senate and she loses the chairmanship of the EPW Committee. That’s precisely why the House is gunning for a May deadline.
    5. The breakdown: The Senate Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic as the House about having to take this up when they’re in charge. Thirteen Rs joined the Ds in pushing for a December sunset, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who wants to raise the gas tax and be done already. “Wouldn’t it be great to finish 2014 actually solving one issue; taking one issue off the plate next year?” he said yesterday at a WSJ press breakfast. Only one Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, voted no on Boxer’s date-change amendment. Notably, David Vitter, the ranking member on the EPW Committee, who has shown great bipartisan unity with Boxer, broke with her on this and voted to essentially flush their six-year-bill down the toilet. His predecessor, James Inhofe, voted in favor of Boxer’s December 19 deadline.
    6. The fallout: If the GOP does win the Senate in 2014, the conventional wisdom says they’ll lose it again in 2016. Will the Republicans really want to take on a tax increase of any kind during the only two years when they’ll get the lion’s share of the blame? Of course not. The prognosis is that if there’s no long-term bill this term, it’ll be another three years. Three more years of patchwork funding gimmicks is nothing to look forward to.
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Jon Stewart on the Transportation Funding Crisis: “This is So Stupid”

Jon Stewart devoted eight minutes to the Highway Trust Fund funding problem in last night’s episode and, in our humble opinion, he NAILED it.

If this doesn’t make you want to pound your head against the nearest hard object, you might want to check your pulse.

Stewart concludes that lawmakers’ response to this easily fixable problem is basically summed up as: “F*** it, we’ll probably all be dead in ten years anyway.” Lawmakers just put a solution off again for another eight months.

This video makes great explainer for all your aunts, uncles and co-workers that are dying to get up to speed on one of the most frustrating and long-running problems in transportation in the United States.

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And So Begins the Long Slog to the Lame Duck

The Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money a month before MAP-21 expires, but a real solution is still a long way away. Image: ##http://www.dot.gov/highway-trust-fund-ticker##U.S. DOT##

The Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money a month before MAP-21 expires, but a real solution is still a long way away. Image: U.S. DOT

The push for a long-term transportation bill is slowly giving way to the reality of an utter lack of consensus around a funding mechanism. The chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which is charged with finding that consensus, indicated today that the job just isn’t possible right now. The Hill reports that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has a bill in the works for a short-term extension to keep MAP-21 alive and funded, at least, until the end of the year.

The Highway Trust Fund (20 percent of which goes to transit) is expected to run out of money in August, well before the bill expires September 30.

Wyden’s plan would transfer $9 billion from the general fund to keep MAP-21 going until December 31. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed a six-year transportation bill last month, but the bill lacks a funding source. The House hasn’t taken any action, except for floating a scheme to pay for transportation by reducing Saturday mail delivery.

The Hill’s Keith Laing notes that Wyden has spoken against temporary transportation funding measures, saying it would be a “tragic mistake” for lawmakers to fail to pass a long-term package. But there is not yet a critical mass of lawmakers lining up behind any of the funding proposals on the table: a 12- or 15-cent fuel tax increase, President Obama’s corporate tax reform proposal, an upstream per-barrel oil fee, or the GOP post office plan. Wyden himself hasn’t come out in favor of any particular idea.

Wyden’s three-month extension would push big decisions about funding into the lame duck period, between the November Congressional elections and the start of the next Congressional session. Several lawmakers have indicated that the lame duck is the best — or only — chance for passing a long-term transportation bill.

Of course, SAFETEA-LU was extended for three years before MAP-21 passed, and lawmakers failed in every season to gather up the guts to address the funding shortfall in a sustainable way. Another series of extensions or short-term funding gimmicks remains a strong possibility, even after the lame duck.

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“Rally for Roads” Demands Transportation Funding Fix

Finance Committee Chair promises: "Failure is not an option." Photo: ##https://twitter.com/RonWyden/status/476793885050802176##Twitter/Ron Wyden##

Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden: “Failure is not an option.” Photo: Ron Wyden/Twitter

This morning, the road construction industry rallied in front of the U.S. Capitol to demand that Congress invest in infrastructure. But some of the best-known transportation reformers in Washington were also on hand for an event that didn’t focus on one mode over others.

The overriding message of the day was simple: Don’t let transportation funding dry up. While the list of sponsors included mostly construction groups that want more money for their industry, many of them would be just as happy to build transit as roads. Kerri Leininger of the National Ready-Mix Concrete Association, one of the main organizing groups, said limiting the Highway Trust Fund to only highways, as some have suggested, is not their message.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer pushed for his bill increasing the gas tax by 15 cents over three years and indexing it to inflation. Rep. Peter DeFazio unveiled his new plan to replace the gas tax entirely with a per-barrel levy on oil companies.

Sen. Ron Wyden intoned, “When it comes to funding transportation, failure is not an option!” As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Wyden is the person tasked with actually finding a way to fund transportation — and get it through both houses of Congress. He’s as aware as anyone of the looming possibility of failure.

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Senate Delays Bill as Metro Businesses Plead For Transportation Investment

Tampa riverwalk

The latest extension of Tampa’s Riverwalk is now under construction, thanks to TIGER — among the transportation investments that the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s CEO supports. Photo: Apalapala/Flickr

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee once again delayed the release of its six-year reauthorization bill, a follow-up to the MAP-21 bill that expires September 30. Committee Chair Barbara Boxer had initially promised to unveil the legislative text early this week, then today, and now is promising to release the bill next Monday, with a markup scheduled for next Thursday.

Meanwhile, key interest groups are already trying to improve the bill-to-be, which promises to largely maintain the status quo as far as federal funding levels and formulas go. Yesterday, a long list of local Chamber of Commerce executives, representing business leaders in metropolitan areas from Mobile to Youngstown to Brooklyn, sent a joint letter to their members of Congress and to EPW leadership. The letter urges Congress “to address both the federal funding shortfall and the impediments to empowering metropolitan regions to advance locally-driven innovative solutions to our transportation challenges.”

The chamber executives, all members of the Metro Cities Council at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, join a long list of others, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Obama administration, in advocating greater federal transportation spending. Their letter points out that municipalities and states are “stepping up to identify sources of additional transportation revenue,” but need “a strong federal partner” to keep up with critical transportation needs.

The bill the EPW Committee will reveal on Monday does not have any funding stream attached to it — that’s the Finance Committees’s job — nor does it raise investment levels over the previous bill, which, in turn, recycled numbers from the bill before that.

In a Commerce Committee hearing yesterday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx dodged a question about whether the administration had ruled out a gas tax increase, answering only that he would “listen to Congress.”

“That’s what your predecessor said,” retorted ranking Republican John Thune, “except he ruled it out.” Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller needled Foxx on his evasiveness: “You’re better than that, Mr. Secretary.”

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