RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. President-elect Barack Obama has ambitious plans for the nation's highways, roads and bridges. And the problem of paying for those plans is made worse because people have been driving less. That means less tax revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the roads and bridges. Last year, it needed an $8 billion bailout from Congress. This year, it's headed into the red again. As part of our Memo to the President series, NPR's Debbie Elliott looks at what the new administration and Congress face as they craft the biggest overhaul of federal transportation policy in 40 years. She begins next to an interstate highway.
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Every time you fill your gas tank, you pay about 18.5 cents a gallon in federal taxes. That helps pay for interstates like this busy one, I-495, the beltway that surrounds the nation's capital. Some 225,000 vehicles travel the beltway every day, and it contains two interchanges that are ranked among the top 20 worst bottlenecks in the nation. As highways like this one become more and more congested, and aging bridges and overpasses are in need of repair, the trust fund that pays for them needs a fix, too. One of the people charged with finding that fix is Congressman Jim Oberstar. The Minnesota Democrat is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. His message for the president-elect?
Representative JIM OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota; Chair, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure): Learn from history.
ELLIOTT: He says, look back to when the nation last grappled with congested highways and slow-moving goods. It was the 1950s, and the solution was a $22.5 billion interstate highway system to be paid for by a gasoline tax of 3 cents per gallon. It turned out that wasn't enough, so Congress soon raised it by another penny.
Rep. OBERSTAR: In the one-cent increase in the user fee passed the House on a voice vote. You can hardly pass a prayer on a voice vote today. 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.
ELLIOTT: Raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation will be on the agenda when the Transportation Committee tackles what Oberstar says will be a nearly $500 billion update of the nation's transportation policy next year. But Oberstar says raising the gas tax alone won't be enough. The panel's top Republican, John Mica of Florida, agrees. He says it's time to re-evaluate the gas tax as the primary way the country pays for its highways.
Representative JOHN MICA (Republican, Florida; House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure): Every day, we're getting a more efficient fleet on the road. In fact, came to work here in the House office building last week, I saw a car plugged into the wall. They won't be paying any gasoline tax. So, the system is broken. Even if we just increase the gas tax and no one's using the traditional fuels, which will eventually be the case, I think that the system has to be corrected.
ELLIOTT: Proposals include a tax based on miles you travel and setting up a federal infrastructure bank that could borrow money to fund long-term projects. That's an idea President-elect Obama has endorsed. In the short term, Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats plan to include infrastructure spending in a massive stimulus package coming early next year. Local officials welcome that infusion, but say it's only a start.
Governor ED RENDELL (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Our message to the president: Stimulus is great, but don't include infrastructure in the stimulus package and then forget about it.
ELLIOTT: That's Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat who has joined with California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to create the advocacy group Building America's Future.
Gov. RENDELL: We have to have a long-term plan to rebuild the country's infrastructure, to build it out when it's necessary. It will be a long-term job generator and would have an incredible effect on the economy.
ELLIOTT: Rendell also says it's time to take on congressional earmarks. He says experts should pick projects, not lawmakers.
Gov. RENDELL: I think the public has turned against earmarks and turned against earmarks with a vengeance. 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.
ELLIOTT: But House Transportation Chairman Oberstar defends Congress' role.
Rep. OBERSTAR: When 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.
ELLIOTT: 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. Debbie Elliot, NPR News, the Capitol.
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