August 7, 2015 - From the August, 2015 issue

A Reality Check: Do Too Many Republicans Want to Defund Federal Surface Transportation Investment?

The US Congress recently failed, once again, to reach consensus on a long-term federal surface transportation bill. Congressman Earl Blumenauer (OR-3) decried this outcome with TPR just before the House adjourned for the session. A long-time advocate for increasing the gas tax, Blumenauer described the growing coalition in favor of that solution to the funding crisis facing America's failing infrastructure.


Earl Blumenauer

"There’s no expectation that we’re going to move forward with a robust, six-year surface transportation bill… Congress has not done that since 1998.” -Earl Blumenauer

"When I introduced the first gas-tax increase in 22 years, I was joined by…literally the broadest coalition for any of the major issues that face us on Capitol Hill.” -Earl Blumenauer

Earl, please give our readers a status report on Congress’s efforts, before recess, to address the highway and infrastructure needs of the country.

Earl Blumenauer: We’re talking on Thursday afternoon and the Senate has just passed its version of a six-year highway bill—but with funding for only half of that, and a very problematic approach to providing funding.

When you do things like sell off assets—such as oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve—to finance ongoing transportation obligations, that’s stupid policy. It’s also ill-advised, in terms of selling oil at a remarkably low price.

The bill passed by almost a two-to-one margin in the Senate, but the House has already adjourned, having announced that they would not pass the Senate bill and having sent over two pieces of legislation to the Senate. One is a funding strategy until the middle of December—their preferred approach. The other, more recently, is simply a three-month extension, which might be more acceptable to the Senate.

We are basically stuck not giving America the certainty it needs. There’s no expectation that we’re going to move forward with a robust, six-year surface transportation bill. Frankly, Congress has not done that since 1998. 

Could you summarize the real costs to the public of Congress’ repeated failure to pass a multi-year surface transportation funding bill and the impact for America’s economy?

It’s hard to overstate the damage that Congress’ approach has inflicted.

It is well known that poorly maintained road surfaces inflict increased maintenance costs, estimated to be over $500 per vehicle per year. There’s more than $125 billion annual cost for congestion, penciling out to over $800 per commuter and the time equivalent of five full work days.

Because we are looking at the thirty-fourth short-term extension, we have fits and starts. We already had, in mid-spring, reductions in construction schedules because of uncertainty around the last proposal that expired in May. You don’t get the big multistate, multimodal, multiyear projects because you simply cannot plan them. You are not getting the benefits of harnessing the power of this investment for the overall economy. The S&P 500 research arm estimates that there is $2 billion of economic impact for each $1.3 billion of infrastructure investment, and almost 30,000 jobs are created.

We’re inflicting costs right now on a public with inadequate infrastructure that is falling apart as America falls behind. Then, we are denied the economic boost we would have if we were doing our job appropriately and maintaining the federal partnership for surface transportation. 

Could you speak to the end of a tradition—which lasted until the late ’90s—of Congressional bipartisanship regarding transportation funding?

From the beginning of the interstate freeway system—the National Interstate and Defense Highways program signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1956—there has been broad bipartisan support. This has never been a partisan issue. In times past, we’ve even had gas taxes passed by voice votes. President Reagan, in 1982, devoted his Thanksgiving Day speech to calling on Congress to come back into session after the holiday and raise the gas tax. Indeed, President Reagan guided a 125 percent increase in that user fee.

The last time we had a six-year reauthorization, in 1998, I was privileged to be a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. We worked cooperatively. In fact, the partnership between the ranking Democrat, Jim Oberstar, and the Republican chair of the committee, Bud Shuster, was essentially seamless. The committee faced down and won a contest between then-speaker Newt Gingrich, the Republican leading the House of Representatives, and then-Democratic President Bill Clinton. This has been an area of significant bipartisan cooperation.

It’s only been of late that the issue has become polarized. Part of it comes from an anti-tax view. It also speaks to a growing interest on the part of some in Congress to get the federal government out of the surface-transportation business. Last year, 26 Republicans voted to essentially turn it back to the states—to devolve—by slicing the gas tax and letting the states pick up that responsibility. That was, however, rejected by many Republicans and almost all Democrats. This pinching continues.

Interestingly, most states recognize their responsibility and have been moving to fund their part of the partnership. Twenty-one states have increased transportation funding since 2012. In 2015 already, six Republican states have voted to increase the gas tax: Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Utah. In the state of Washington, where Republicans control the State Senate, they voted just a few weeks ago to increase their gas tax by 15 cents.

There’s bipartisan support once you get away from congressional leadership. Historically, there has been strong bipartisan effort to build and maintain our surface—road, transit, and bridge—programs.

Could you elaborate, Earl, on who makes up the coalition in favor of a bipartisan approach today to a gas-tax increase and full funding of highway and transportation infrastructure?

When I introduced the first gas-tax increase in 22 years, I was joined by the US Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, construction trades, truckers, the American Automobile Association (AAA), environmentalists, and transit. It is literally the broadest coalition for any of the major issues that face us on Capitol Hill.

Significantly, the groups that represent those who would pay this fee increase—truckers and AAA—are among the strongest proponents. It’s a fascinating process here to watch red states increase their gas tax, watch the coalition come together, and watch Congress tie itself in knots avoiding the simple, direct alternative that we have used for decades.

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Given what’s happened this session and for more than a decade, are you optimistic or cynical about the ability of this Congress to thoughtfully address the funding of transportation infrastructure?

I think we can do it. I am watching support build for stepping up and raising the gas tax. I have over three-dozen Democratic cosponsors to the legislation, and I really haven’t twisted any arms on this bill. I have conversations on an ongoing basis with Republican colleagues who are concerned that we need to be able to move forward on increasing these resources. I actually got a call from a colleague in the US Senate inquiring as to whether I have any opposition to his introducing my bill in the Senate.

There is editorial support from coast to coast. Very powerful statements have appeared in the New York Times, Bloomberg News, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post—which has opined four or five times, most recently just a week ago, very forcefully. Regional papers around the country are stepping up.

There was a powerful presentation on 60 Minutes last fall on the sorry state of our infrastructure. They rebroadcast it this spring when Congress was hemming and hawing. I get a sense that there is movement. I know there are people in both parties who are sympathetic to this and talking more about it. The administration has moved from a position of adamant opposition to raising the gas tax, to now indicating that they’ll accept any bipartisan solution. The gas tax is a solution that the president would sign if it were presented to him.

We keep facing the reality of Winston Churchill’s wisdom when he suggested that you could count on the Americans to do the right thing after they’ve exhausted every other possibility. We’re getting to the point where we’re just about exhausting any other alternative to deal with surface transportation.

Earl, you are a 10-term member of Congress and serve on the House Ways and Means Committee; you chair Congress’ Livability Caucus; and before entering Congress, you served as Portland, Oregon’s Commissioner of Public Works & Transportation. Knowing transportation issues intimately, what are the essential policy elements that ought to be included in a fully funded federal surface transportation bill this session?

We have long discussed in The Planning Report and at VerdeXchange the wisdom of legislation championed by the late and great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.      

California’s own Norman Mineta relied on the latter’s success when he played a leadership role in the establishment of the original ISTEA legislation. This gave local authority more flexibility in dealing with transportation comprehensively, dealing with multi-modes—particularly transit, bike, and pedestrian—and giving incentives for planning things right. Currently there are very few standards that apply to the bulk of the funds that go for highway transportation, but pretty rigorous tests for transit. They ought to be treated uniformly.

We ought to increase flexibility, not restrict it. We ought to put more of an emphasis on planning. Simply adding highway capacity, if it’s not properly integrated into the existing transportation network, can actually create problems. We should right-size this.

We should be investing more, and we should have a full range of revenue and financing options to increase investment. There’s a role in America for public-private partnerships. I think we should make it a little easier to toll facilities where that’s appropriate. Finally, and most importantly, we ought to transition to a future funding mechanism that is fairer, more sustainable, and has more capacity to influence future transportation.

In Oregon, the state that gave you the first gas tax dedicated to highway construction 96 years ago, we’ve been experimenting for the last decade with a way to get rid of it: a Vehicle Miles Traveled fee—a road-user charge. We’ve done two pilot projects already, and we’re starting a third this summer. I’m joining up to 5,000 Oregonians to test a variety of ways to keep track of how far people go. Giving motorists the choice of the mechanism to keep track and pay takes care of the concerns some have about privacy—about whether “big government” shadows their movements. (I must say, I find that ironic, because anybody with an iPhone surely is aware that “the Man” knows where they are right now.)

I have legislation that is a companion bill to my gas-tax increase and would expand Oregon’s pilot project to other states on a voluntary basis. If we do that in the next reauthorization, and states have a chance to spend a year or two experimenting, testing, and educating the public, we’ll be in a position in the next six-year bill to begin the transition away from the gas tax to a national road-user charge. 

The timeliness of this funding legislation is obvious: the recent collapse of a bridge on I-10 between California and Arizona resulting from flooding has seriously disrupted interstate commerce. That is only one of too many examples of the nation’s failing infrastructure. How, if at all, do such infrastructure failures politically impact congressional deliberations? 

I fear that we have become almost numb to the continued series of stories about deteriorating and failing infrastructure—the 1-35 in Minneapolis; the bridge collapse in Puget Sound, near Seattle; what you just experienced as a result of flooding. There are certain horrific events that should spur actions (like mass shootings, one would think), but somehow they seem to bounce off policymakers.

The good news is that more momentum is building at the state and local level. The coalition we’ve talked about is broad and growing, and we’re running out of alternatives. We’re looking at an America that used to have the finest infrastructure in the world when we started in this business, David. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

The last study I saw internationally pegged us at twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh—and falling. We’re not keeping pace with the investments of other countries around the globe. I’m hopeful that work at the state and local level will help prompt people to step up and take action. What Congress has done this summer is a step backward.

I am hopeful President Obama will indicate that this is the last short-term extension he’s going to pass. I recently had an opportunity to lobby him one-on-one for the better part of half an hour. My one ask was to draw a line in the sand, like the end of October. Tell Congress: No more extensions past then. This is not something that needs six months or another year. The legislation to raise the gas tax is simple and could be passed in less than two weeks. Everybody would understand it. Once we tell the Committees of Jurisdiction, who are writing the highway bill, how much money they have to work with, they can come up with a comprehensive bill in two months without breaking a sweat. 

Earl, we truly look forward to you joining us again at VerdeXchange 2016 in Los Angeles, January 24-26, to report on Congress’ action on surface transportation.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.