US Chamber to Congress on transportation bill: You're doing it wrong

The US Chamber of Commerce expressed its exasperation with lawmakers for the way Congress is attempting to fund a transportation bill crucial to highway projects and repairs. 

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue (r.) and Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, speak to reporters in Washington Monday.

The Chamber of Commerce’s top brass has a message for Congress on transportation: You’re doing it wrong.

“What we lack is anybody of any party willing to address the fundamental problem called money,” said Bruce Josten, the chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, during a breakfast for reporters sponsored by the Monitor Monday.

Mr. Josten and Chamber CEO Tom Donohue expressed exasperation at how Congress has attempted to fund long-term investments in America’s infrastructure and said congressional delay is costing jobs.

Members of the House and Senate are currently attempting to put together a compromise bill to extend transportation funding before a 90-day funding fix lapses at the end of June. 

“Nothing happens in the states and in the communities when you’ve got a 90-day or a 120-day extension,” Mr. Donohue said. Governors and mayors “can’t write a contract [to build transportation infrastructure] in that amount of time, and jobs that could be had are not going to be had.”

While congressional staffers have been meeting to lay the groundwork for a deal, Josten said that Congress would likely seek another, longer extension to push the bill to year’s end or beyond.

The Senate passed a two year, $109 billion transportation bill by a 74-to-22 margin in March. The bill relies on a hodge podge of funding measures, such as tapping a trust fund for cleaning up leaks from underground storage tanks, to make ends meet.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio favored a five-year transportation measure linking transportation to increased energy production. When House Republicans balked at the bill’s cost, they instead passed a 90-day extension of current transportation funding levels. The measure was little more than a vehicle to get the two houses to a conference committee.

“These guys and gals are all doing this because they’re afraid to face the fundamental issues of where we get the revenue," Donohue said. "We haven’t had an increase in the federal fuel tax in 18 years.”

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. The tax was last increased in 1993 to $0.184, 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.

And that brings up the another issue nobody wants to talk about, Josten said: a vehicle miles traveled system that taxes drivers for the distances they drive. In an era of increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles, many transportation experts consider this a necessary evolution to sustainably support the nation’s bridges and roads.

“Everybody wants the [transportation bill] to be fixed because they need roads and bridges to be fixed, and everybody wants the money and everybody knows [transportation] needs the money,” Donohue said, but “nobody wants to take a vote on this.”

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