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LaHood and Foxx square off over highway funding

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America is one big pothole” when it comes to its infrastructure, says former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

Ray LaHood speaking at the ALK Technology Summit.

His remedy? The federal fuel tax should be raised 10 cents a gallon, while at the same time, be tied to inflation. Doing so would bring economic benefits to communities across “the greatest nation on Earth,” he said. LaHood was the opening speaker for the second day of the ALK Technology Summit held May 21 in Princeton, New Jersey. LaHood served as Secretary of Transportation from 2009 to 2013 and has since been succeeded by current Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

Lamenting the fact that the U.S. Interstate system, built during the post-World War II years, was at one time “the envy of the world” in addition to being a successful job creator, LaHood now believes it to be in dire shape. And don’t blame it on the last two brutal winters, he says. “It’s because we haven’t kept up with our infrastructure.”

Instead, the U.S. is the “laughingstock of the world” when it comes to infrastructure funding. He particularly cited China’s current rapid building of infrastructure as an example of demonstrating the importance of a healthy and thriving infrastructure for global competitiveness.

While tolls and taxes on vehicles continue to be in the funding conversation among the states, LaHood favors the federal fuel tax as being the best way to fund the U.S. Highway Trust Fund. “I know you in the trucking business pay a lot of taxes,” he said, “but if we want to get back to being number one, we have to have the resources to do it.” He then rallied the attendees to get involved by contacting their congressmen. “We need your help,” he said. “Every one of you has a representative in Congress, and every one of you has two Senators … You need to start talking to them. These are the people you sent to Washington to move America forward – not to stagnate – and to keep America No. 1.”

LaHood also called to the attention of the attendees the fact that the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by fuel taxes, is set to expire in a few months and that could be a death knell to the U.S. Interstate infrastructure. He warned that the idea of Congress then financing the Highway Trust Fund from the General fund would be a disaster. Noting that infrastructure has a history of being a bipartisan issue, he said that Congress should renew the fuel tax for another six years and have it indexed to account for inflation.

He referenced a recent water resources bill that recently passed the House with support from both parties as indicative of the potential for compromise between the parties. LaHood believes that dynamic might bode well for Congress to deliver a long-term highway bill that could significantly address the U.S. infrastructure.

LaHood praised the Senate’s recent unanimous vote to extend MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act), but was critical of the bill for its lack of action or ways to generate more Highway Trust Fund revenue. “They’ve introduced a bill, but there’s no money for it and there’s no talk of any money for it.”

The Senate Environmental and Public Works (EPW) Committee passed a six-year extension of the current federal funding program, MAP-21, in May. The policy portion of the transportation reauthorization calls for maintaining current spending levels for highways and transit with allowances for any increases due to inflation. That translates into spending for federal-aid highway programs to grow from $38.4 billion in 2015 to $42.6 billion in 2020.

The extension also calls for greater transparency in the use of federal funds in order to demonstrate how and where taxpayers’ infrastructure dollars are being spent while at the same time strengthening public trust. In addition, the federal freight program received some retooling to be formula-based and more flexible for rural and urban areas. This will help to designate more key freight corridors in addition to the initial key regional corridors. The freight program budget would increase at a rapid pace – from $400 million in 2015 to $2 billion by 2020.

Missing from the bill are two Obama administration-backed provisions – the allowance of tolling on existing Interstate lanes and a requirement to see that drivers get paid at least minimum wage for on-duty time not spent driving. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has been stumping around the country to gain support for the White House version, which he believes to be the better option.

“We believe our bill is one that’s going to do dramatically important things for this country: increasing investment, making sure that our country is moving forward with projects at a faster clip, and ensuring that we’re going to relieve some of these freight chokepoints that are going to become problems in the future,” Foxx stated.

Speculation still abounds as to the likelihood of a transportation bill being passed before the fall elections due to a history of Congressional indecision. Also, the Senate bill still has to pass the Senate Finance committee, which will have to find a way to pay for the plan in the wake of a failing Highway Trust Fund. Safety and regulatory issues will be examined by the Commerce committee, and transit programs will be reviewed by the Banking committee. The current MAP-21 expires Sept. 30.

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