13 Feb

Prescriptions for rebuilding roads all face potholes

For years, Peter DeFazio has called for a major federal effort on transportation infrastructure. The Oregon congressman has complained about shrinking federal investment compared with crumbling roads and bridges, and about administrations of both parties failing to produce the kind of multiyear transportation programs that once threw interstate highways across a continent.

Now, DeFazio is ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and President Obama’s budget calls for $478 billion in infrastructure spending.

Yet DeFazio isn’t happy.

“The administration has consistently paid lip service to the need to invest in transportation,” he says. “They still have not proposed a realistic way to pay for it.”

For decades, federal gas tax revenues have paid for the government’s transportation projects. But the tax hasn’t been raised for 21 years, and with higher-mileage cars, hybrids and electrics, revenues have been steadily dropping, while the system’s potholes have been steadily growing. The Obama budget proposes to make up the difference with a one-time 14 percent tax on hundreds of billions of dollars in overseas profits that U.S. companies have not brought home to avoid paying the corporate tax rate.

To DeFazio, “There is a minus chance that the Republicans will ever look at that.”
And with Republicans in firm control of both houses, we’re back where we started – except the roads have gotten worse.

The American Society of Civil Engineers – admittedly, a group with a certain bias for building things – grades the country’s current infrastructure at D+, with $3.2 trillion needed by 2020 to fix it. (That number, of course, is beyond any imagined revenues from taxes, tolls or tire redemption fees.) The United States spends vastly less on infrastructure than Europe or China, places that are becoming considerably more effective in moving trains, planes and even automobiles.

Oregon is facing the issue on multiple levels, with congressmen seeking a federal effort, a drive in Salem to raise the state gas tax, and Portland trying to figure out a street fee. Since, according to the civil engineers, more than 1,400 Oregon bridges – 17.6 percent of the state’s total – are structurally obsolete, somebody needs to be digging at some level.

On Capitol Hill, where nobody is laying out a construction schedule based on Obama’s funding proposal, there are other ideas. DeFazio has a plan based on a per-barrel oil tax, which has not yet stirred a stampede of support.

And despite all odds, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, insists that his bill for raising the gas tax – up a nickel a gallon each of the next three years, then indexed for inflation – actually has a chance, although both House Republican leadership and the White House are against it.

“There is a dance that is going on with the Republicans, similar to the dance by the White House,” says the Portland Democrat. Besides, “In this Congress, would you like the president to come out swinging for something you’re supporting? It doesn’t help.”

To Blumenauer, the chances of a gas tax increase are supported not by enthusiasm, but by a process of elimination: “Nobody has an alternative to give us a six-year package, which we haven’t had since 1997.”

Since then, our transportation spending has been less about bridges than Band-Aids.

The situation is getting sufficiently desperate that people with a need to get from here to there are getting more willing to pay for it. DeFazio and Blumenauer both point out that deep red states are moving toward raising their gas taxes, and DeFazio notes that inland waterway users are actively offering to be taxed, because their locks are becoming reluctant to open.
And that the federal highway trust fund is scheduled to run out of money in May, giving many states a very quiet summer construction season.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Automobile Association and the American Trucking Association have all supported an increase in gas taxes and transportation spending. Blumenauer also argues that the sharp drop in gas prices opens an opportunity for a gas tax increase, and that the damage inflicted by cars by deteriorating roads costs drivers more than his gas tax increase would.

But House Speaker John Boehner said last month there weren’t votes for an increase – although he would look at other funding ideas – and DeFazio and Blumenauer both say that Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tells them it’s not going to happen.

Still, Blumenauer insists again, “There is no alternative.”

Except, of course, nothing happening at all.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 2/11/15.