With Congress unable to decide how to pay for transportation aid, highway projects may suffer

The Associated Press

This photo taken April 14, 2014 shows Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx speaking to the media and local government officials about federal transportation funding at the Montgomery County Commissioner's office in Dayton, Ohio. On the road in a tour bus this week, Foxx is urging Congress to quickly approve legislation to pay for highway and transit programs amid warnings that the U.S. government’s Highway Trust Fund is nearly broke. If allowed to run dry, that could threaten to set back or shut down projects across the country, force widespread layoffs of construction workers and delay needed repairs and improvements. (AP Photo/Skip Peterson)

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But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters last week that "what seems to be coming forward as a consensus is a piece of tax reform" rather than shifting money from the general treasury or raising fuel taxes.

Foxx cited the modernization of Interstate 75, which rumbles through the heart of this middle-sized Ohio city, as an example of the kind of much needed improvements communities want but may have to forgo. The $381 million project is intended to expand the highway's capacity, reduce traffic congestion, and eliminate dangerous and confusing left-hand exits. More than a third of the project's cost is being paid with trust fund dollars.

The interstate highway program, launched in 1956, has been funded primarily through federal gas and diesel taxes under the principle that users of the system should pay for its construction and maintenance. But it's been clear for nearly a decade that fuel taxes haven't been keeping pace with transportation needs as the nation's population grows and its infrastructure ages.

The 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax was last increased in 1993 as part of a deal between President Bill Clinton and Congress to raise money to help reduce the federal deficit and pay for transportation programs. Clinton was fiercely criticized by Republicans as a tax-raiser, and the issue was one of several reasons Democrats lost control of the House and Senate the following year.

It was a lesson lawmakers in both parties took to heart.

"People don't want to vote to increase the gas tax," LaHood, a former Republican congressman, said in an interview.

With encouragement from Congress, some states are stepping up their use of tolls to help pay for projects. But tolls aren't practical for all projects.

"Congress is stymied," said John Horsley, former executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "We're all scratching our heads."

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