Speaking Beside A Bridge, Obama Addresses Approaching Budget Gap

President Obama is visiting one of New York state's bridges across the Hudson River to talk about the need to spend more on roads and bridges. Funds for federal highways and bridges continue to fall short of expected needs. Why is the federal gas tax not keeping pace with the number of miles Americans are driving?

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. President Obama is calling on Congress to approve his $302 billion transportation bill. The money would go to repairing and replacing aging bridges and highways.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If they don't act by the end of the summer, federal funding for transportation projects will run out - will run out. There will be no money. The cupboard will be bare.

CORNISH: President Obama made that call today on the banks of the Hudson River, close to where a new span is being constructed to replace the crumbling Tappan Zee Bridge. NPR's Brian Naylor joins us now to talk more about it. Hi there, Brian.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Of course, it's National Infrastructure Week - but that's annual. So, give me an idea of why the special focus this year.

NAYLOR: Well, you know, this infrastructure week, it's something that many of the folks who have the most to gain from transportation funding - labor unions, construction companies, those who use the roads and are worried about their condition, truckers, manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce. But it's taken on special resonance this year because unless something is done, the Highway Trust Fund, which supplies the federal share of the cost of highway and bridge repair, will run out of money. The government says it will probably be down to a billion dollars this summer and that will effectively bring to a halt construction projects in states across the country. And, the administration says, that would put as many as 700,000 construction jobs at risk.

CORNISH: How did the U.S. get to the point where the trust fund is about to go broke?

NAYLOR: Well, this has been brewing for a while. Just like infrastructure week, it seems to come around once every year, whether you're ready for it or not. Most of the revenue from the trust fund comes from the federal fuels tax on gas and diesel fuels. It's now 18.4 cents a gallon and it has been at that level since 1993. And Congress has been unwilling to raise the tax, so, since construction costs keep going up and people are driving about the same but in more fuel efficient cars and trucks, the trust fund just hasn't been able to keep up. So, back in 2008, Congress decided the answer was to take money from the general fund to bolster the Highway Trust Fund. And so, over the last six years, they've taken about $54 billion in general fund money for the trust fund. But many are saying, you know, what Congress really needs to do is to find a stable and predictable source of revenue for the trust fund.

CORNISH: So, what are the proposals on the table to fix the fund?

NAYLOR: Well, someone wrote there are about a million miles of roads in need of repair and almost as many proposals to pay for them. Let's start with the president. He called today on Congress to close some loopholes that allow corporations to keep some of their profits overseas without paying taxes on them and use that revenue for the trust fund. He's also let states impose tolls on interstate highways, something that's rarely allowed now. There's a group of lawmakers that's proposed setting up sort of an infrastructure bank that would guarantee loans and bond purchases for infrastructure projects. Others would create a user fee that drivers would pay based on their mileage. You know, how far you drive is how much you'd pay. And there's also the gas tax. Many people say they'd be fine with raising the gas tax if they knew the money was going to go for road repairs. But the problem is that, you know, none of these ideas has any traction in Congress, certainly nothing that's going to raise anyone's taxes in an election year.

CORNISH: What happens next? No lawmaker's going to let construction halt midway.

NAYLOR: Well, right, exactly. Again, it's an election year. Nobody wants to see road projects halted in the weeks before Election Day. So, what's most likely to happen is what's been happening the last half dozen years, Congress will find some money from the general fund and pump it into the Highway Trust Fund. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would take $18 billion a year for the next several years, in addition to the gas tax, to pay for all the construction projects. And while many in Congress say they want a long-term solution, it's hard to see right now how the two parties can get together on a way to pay for the spending in the remaining months before the election.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Brian, thank you.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Audie.

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