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Transportation bill, not yet passed, already blasted by critics

House and Senate negotiators are considering how to mesh two very different transportation bills, but experts and lobbyists say neither bill addresses the fundamental problems.

By Staff writer / May 8, 2012

Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma (right) speaks, as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California (center) and Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida (left) listen, during the first meeting of the House and Senate conference on the transportation bill Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Washington

House and Senate negotiators may be weeks or even months away from reaching a compromise bill to fund America's transportation needs. But transportation experts don't need to wait for the final product, set to be hammered out by a conference committee beginning Tuesday afternoon. Whatever bill emerges, they say, will once again succeed only in kicking the can of sustainably funding American infrastructure down an ever-more-rutted road.

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Bipartisan commissions have repeatedly suggested two crucial changes in how America pays for its infrastructure: 

  1. A short-term increase in the gasoline tax to make sure US highway funding doesn’t go belly-up.
  2. A long-term plan for charging drivers directly for how many miles they drive.

Neither the House's basic 90-day extension of funding passed April 20, nor the Senate's more ambitious two-year plan passed March 14 addresses those suggestions. Until Congress is willing to consider such proposals, any transportation bill is merely papering over the cracks, say economic groups.

“We’re at a point where we’re at the ‘searching under the couch cushions’ portion of finding transportation funding as opposed to dealing directly with the question of user fees,” says Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation and infrastructure at the US Chamber of Commerce

What’s wrong with America’s transportation situation? In large measure, it's the gas tax.

The federal gas tax is a primary means of funding highway construction and maintenance. The problem is that it is not indexed for inflation, so while road repair costs creep upward, the gas tax stays the same. 

While that might be good news for American pocketbooks, it's devastating for America's highways. The tax was last increased in 1993, meaning that drivers are paying more than a third less into the Highway Trust Fund than they were at the beginning of the Clinton administration.

Moreover, the sluggish economy, high gas prices, and environmental concerns have led Americans to drive less and to buy more efficient vehicles. The lower demand for gasoline has further cut into federal taxes. 

The result has been neglect of America's roadways, according to the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. Its 2009 report suggests that the federal government needs to spend roughly $100 billion per year to maintain and improve its infrastructure. The Senate transportation bill offers $109 billion over two years.

“The gap between what we’re investing and what we need is just enormous,” says Rob Atkinson, former chairman of the NSTIFC. “And they make almost no effort to address that.” 

The problem is that paying for American infrastructure more fully means raising taxes on someone.

One solution, pegging the gas tax to inflation – or raising it outright – would risk further angering Americans already angry about gas prices. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 65 percent of Americans disapprove of how President Obama has handled gasoline prices, compared with 26 percent who approve. 

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