Obama's Highway Plans Face Funding Roadblock

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR follows the transition to a new administration through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that outline the issues and challenges facing the new president. From a broken military to a troubled economy — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

Mr. President-elect, you have ambitious plans for the nation's crumbling highways, roads and bridges. And that means you have a big problem: money.

People have been driving less. So they buy less gasoline and pay less in taxes into the federal Highway Trust Fund. Those taxes — 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline — pay for those roads and bridges. Last year, the trust fund needed an $8 billion bailout from Congress. This year, it's headed again into the red. That's quite a challenge as you and Congress get set to re-authorize the federal highway bill and craft the biggest overhaul of transportation policy in 50 years.

Finding A Way To Pay

Clearly, the trust fund needs a fix. One of the people charged with finding that fix is Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Oberstar served as that panel's chief of staff 40 years ago. And his message for you, Mr. Obama: "Learn from history."

Look back to when the nation last grappled with congested highways and slow-moving goods, he says. It was the 1950s, and the solution was a $22.5 billion, 42,000-mile interstate highway system paid for by a gasoline tax of 3 cents per gallon. It turned out that wasn't enough, so Congress soon raised it by a penny.

"And the 1 cent increase in the user fee passed the House on a voice vote. You can hardly pass a prayer on a voice vote today," Oberstar says. "But in those days there was a sense of destiny, of future, of what is good for America — not what is good for my political career. But what we've had in the last 12 years is a no-tax philosophy, and so there's not been an increase in the user fee, the gas tax, since 1993."

Raising the gasoline tax and indexing it to inflation will be on the agenda next year when the transportation committee tackles what Oberstar says will be a nearly $500 billion update of the nation's transportation policy. But Oberstar says raising the gas tax alone won't be enough.

The panel's top Republican, John Mica of Florida, agrees. Mica says it's time to re-evaluate the gas tax as the primary way the country pays for its highways.

"Every day, we're getting a more efficient fleet on the road," Mica says. "In fact, [as] I came to work here in the House office building last week, I saw a car plugged into the wall. They won't pay any gasoline tax. So the system is broken. Even if we just increase the gas tax and no one's using traditional fuels, which will eventually be the case, I think that the system has to be corrected."

Proposals include a tax based on miles traveled and setting up a federal infrastructure bank that could borrow money to fund long-term projects. That's an idea you have endorsed, Mr. President-elect.

Local Officials: Stimulus Only A Start

In the short term, you and congressional Democrats plan to include infrastructure spending in a massive economic stimulus package coming early next year. Local officials welcome that infusion, but say it's only a start.

"Our message to the president: Stimulus is great, but don't include infrastructure in the stimulus package and then forget about it," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says.

Rendell, a Democrat, has joined with California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to create an advocacy group called Building America's Future.

"We have to have a long-term plan to rebuild the country's infrastructure, to build it out when it's necessary," Rendell says. "It will do tremendous good for the country — economic competitiveness, public safety, quality of life. At the same time, it will be a long-term job generator and would have an incredible effect on the economy."

Rendell also says it's time to take on congressional earmarks. He says experts should pick projects, not lawmakers.

"I think the public has turned against earmarks ... with a vengeance," Rendell says. "And as a result, they have no confidence that if we put a lot of money on the table to repair our infrastructure that it wouldn't be wasted away by Congress making decisions based on politics, not merit."

But Oberstar defends the role of Congress: "When the road isn't improved in your neighborhood or your travel to work is congested and needs another lane and the state Department of Transportation doesn't address that need ... You don't vote for the DOT; you don't vote for the commissioner of transportation. You vote for your member of Congress."

So, Mr. President-elect, part of the challenge will be how to weed out the "bridges to nowhere" from the projects that really will keep the country moving.

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