$20 Billion Needed For Highway, Transit Projects

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The Highway Trust Fund is almost out of money and current law is about to expire. Lawmakers in the House want to pass a six-year, $500 billion plan to improve congested highways, crumbling bridges and under-funded mass transit. But Senate lawmakers are siding with the Obama administration in calling for a less expensive, 18-month stopgap bill.

DAVID GREENE, host:

Here in the nation's capital, a deadly subway car crash last week served as a reminder of some serious problems plaguing the country's transportation system. Trains, as well as roads and bridges, are in need of repair, but a government fund that pays for major projects is running out of money, and a law that governs transportation policy is expiring in October.

With this latest crash as the backdrop, Congress and the White House are squabbling over transportation, hoping to work out some differences. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: In less than 60 days, the Highway Trust Fund will likely run out of money. States rely on the fund to pay for road and transit projects, but the fund relies on gasoline taxes, 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. And those revenues are falling because of inflation, the slow economy and the rise of more efficient cars.

It translates to a shortfall of billions of dollars, says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): Clearly, this situation cannot continue. We have inherited a system that can no longer pay for itself.

CORNISH: The shortfall also coincides with the expiration of the current six-year transportation plan. House lawmakers have a new one - more than 700 pages -for road repairs, bridges, public transit and high-speed rail. But it comes with sticker shock - more than $500 billion in spending over six years.

So President Obama wants Congress to skip the grand plan for now and pass an 18-month extension of the current law with an extra $20 billion or so for the trust fund. That idea was met with scorn by the House Transportation Committee.

Representative JOHN MICA (Republican, Florida): This is an opportunity for people to go to work in this country. So putting it off for 18 months, to me, is a very bad idea.

Representative PETER DEFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): Eighteen months of funding means no state will start a project that takes more than 18 months. That's not acceptable to this committee.

CORNISH: That's Florida Republican John Mica and Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio. They and other committee members have written the president, rejecting his plan and calling for a total overhaul of transportation policy. Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar of Minnesota put together the bill.

Representative JIM OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota; Chairman, House Transportation Committee): Would this legislation transform the department, the structure, the functions, the programs, to make a more deliverable, accountable, transparent and performance-based program?

CORNISH: Oberstar's proposal includes the creation of a national infrastructure bank for state's to go to for long-term projects. It provides billions of dollars for highway construction and mass transit systems. It would try to ease congestion and reduce project delays. But for some, like Senator Barbara Boxer of California, it's just too much, too soon.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California; Chair, Public Works Committee): Let's be honest, here. When it comes to going to the Senate floor, this can't be done quickly. It has to take time, and time is not on our side in terms of a trust fund that could be out of funds.

CORNISH: Boxer chairs the Public Works Committee. She agrees with President Obama that the agenda is already full, with climate change, health care and the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice. She supports the 18-month extension of the transportation bill, but she's wondering where anyone is going to come up with $20 billion for the trust fund. Speaking before Boxer's committee last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he's not sure.

Sec. LAHOOD: The thing that I want you to know: There are a lot of people putting their heads together right now to figure out where to get $20 billion and how to pay for it.

CORNISH: Some senators want to use leftover stimulus funds to cover the shortfall, and there are all sorts of ideas for long-term funding, like raising the gasoline tax or taxing people based on the miles they drive. Either way, it would be a tax increase, so the president's 18-month plan would put that politically-unsavory debate safely aside until after midterm elections.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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