House Republicans Mull Ways To Fund Public Transit

It's estimated the nation faces a $3 trillion backlog in unmet road and transit needs. Since the Reagan administration, public transit has been funded from the same revenue stream as roads and bridges. Now there's a movement to fund public transit with revenue sources other than the gas tax.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news. Congress has been working out details of a deal we told you about yesterday. Lawmakers are on their way to renewing a payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The deal would also extend unemployment benefits and fend off a cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

INSKEEP: All those changes would expand the federal deficit, so the agreement would recover some of the cost by raising pension contributions by some federal workers.

MONTAGNE: President Obama made the payroll tax cut a top priority. He wanted to keep it from expiring at the end of the month. His demand was widely seen as putting Republicans at a political disadvantage. Many resisted a tax cut the president proposed.

INSKEEP: But in a tactical retreat, they're working to allow votes in the House and Senate without the usual last-minute brinksmanship. As the bipartisan deal took shape last night, the website Politico headlined a story: GOP Eases Its Culture of No.

MONTAGNE: It is not clear if that bipartisanship will extend to other measures, like President Obama's call for big investments in transportation. Republicans and Democrats each have reasons to support such proposals.

INSKEEP: Unions like the jobs; businesses like the contracts, as well as development.

MONTAGNE: The House and Senate are debating their own proposals for roads, bridges and mass transit.

INSKEEP: But no proposal has a clear path forward, despite an estimated $3 trillion backlog in needed projects. NPR's Brian Naylor has more.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: That $3 trillion figure comes from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Their report also says that backlog is costing American households and businesses $130 billion a year in lost travel time, excess vehicle wear and environmental damages. So there is a lot at stake here, and groups ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to labor unions and environmentalists have been urging Congress to act.

Here's an ad that's been running on Washington D.C. radio stations, employing the late President Ronald Reagan in the cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's time for Congress to pass a robust six-year highway and public transit bill. Because when Congress does its job, Americans can get to theirs.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Clearly this program is an investment in tomorrow that we must make today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Paid for by A.R.T.B.A. and A.P.T.A.

NAYLOR: But conjuring up the ghost of Ronald Reagan may not be enough to win passage of a transportation bill. The House is wrestling with a five-year GOP-drafted measure, one that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a former Republican congressman, called a lousy bill in a conference call with reporters the other day.

SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD: The House bill takes us back to the dark ages. That's why I hope that there'll be lots of, you know, opportunities to amend it, to plus up the transit funding and to plus up other funding.

NAYLOR: What LaHood and Democrats, and some Republicans, object to is the way the House bill pays for public transit. Since the Reagan administration, public transit has gotten its funding from the same revenue stream as roads and bridges, namely the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. But that revenue stream is running dry. I'll get to why in a moment.

House Republicans now want to fund public transit with other revenue sources. Robert Healy is a vice president with the American Public Transportation Association, one of the groups behind the Reagan radio ad. And not surprisingly, he's opposed to the idea of separating public transit funding from the gas tax.

ROBERT HEALY: And furthermore, we're concerned that once that $40 billion runs out, there is no promise or no guarantee of any federal funding for the public transportation program whatsoever.

NAYLOR: The House bill has also drawn opposition from conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth, because, they say, it simply spends too much. In fact, Andrew Roth of the Club for Growth says, with the exception of the interstate system, the federal government ought to get out of the business of transportation funding altogether.

ANDREW ROTH: For all of the other roads and all of the other bridges and all of the other concerns, each state should be afforded their own ability to do whatever they want.

NAYLOR: But states are having their own struggles with transportation funding already. And it's much the same as the federal problem: diminishing returns from the gas tax. People are driving more fuel-efficient cars, and in some cases, driving less altogether.

Meanwhile the federal gas tax, at 18 cents a gallon, hasn't been raised since 1993. In some states, the gas tax has been unchanged even longer. Carl Davis, of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, says it doesn't make sense.

CARL DAVIS: If you owned a grocery store and decided 20 years ago that you were going to charge two dollars for a box of cereal and you weren't ever going to change the price of that cereal, you probably wouldn't be doing very well today, because the cost of what goes into making that cereal has gotten a lot more expensive.

NAYLOR: And while three states are considering gas tax hikes this year, in Washington there is no appetite for increasing the federal gas tax, especially not in an election year. In the Senate, a bipartisan two year transportation bill relies on a combination of unrelated tax measures to supplement the gas tax. But both the Senate and House bills must jump a tangled set of hurdles and possibly hundreds of amendments before either measure can come to a vote.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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