President Obama has plunged into the suddenly hotter discussion over a new surface-transportation bill, unveiling the outline of a proposed $302-billion, four-year highway-transit reauthorization measure.
Obama’s plan, announced on Feb. 26, came about two hours after House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) released his proposal to provide a $126.5-billion, eight-year infusion to the ailing Highway Trust Fund.
Construction and transportation industry officials welcomed the two announcements, but said they wanted to see more details and—more importantly—see the proposals turned into enacted legislation soon. Without new revenue, the trust fund's highway account is projected to dip into a deficit as early as August.
The Obama proposal includes $199 billion for highway construction, $72 billion for transit, $19 billion for passenger rail and $7 billion for highway safety, according to a White House fact sheet.
Other elements are $9 billion for new rounds of the Dept. of Transportation's five-year-old TIGER grant program and $4 billion in direct federal aid for the popular TIFIA loan program for highway, bridge and other major projects.
Under the Obama proposal, revenue from the existing federal motor-fuels taxes and other user fees that feed the trust fund would be supplemented by a one-time $150-billion infusion from corporate tax changes.
Camp's trust-fund boost is part of his wide-ranging draft plan to overhaul the federal tax code. The highway funds would come from corporate tax changes.
Some in Congress may be reluctant to tackle the complex, controversial issue of tax reform, particularly in an election year. But Camp told reporters Feb. 26, "I don't think we can afford to wait."
The Obama's plan's $150 billion would fill the trust fund gap and boost surface-transportation spending by almost $90 billion over four years compared with “current projected levels," according to the White House fact sheet.
The White House also said that Obama “is open to all ideas” for surface-transportation funding and will work with Congress on the issue.
Obama and the White House provided few specifics but said the plan will be part of his fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, slated to be sent to Congress on March 4.
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters that one possible source for increased infrastructure funding would be ending current tax provisions "that are an incentive for companies to ship jobs overseas."
Speaking Feb. 26 at the Union Depot rail station in St. Paul, Minn.—whose renovation was partly funded by a TIGER grant—Obama noted that time is pressing. Federal lawmakers must pass a new highway-transit bill by Sept. 30, when the current statute, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, expires.
Obama said, “If Congress doesn’t finish a transportation bill by the end of the summer, we could see construction projects stop in their tracks.”
The burst of infrastructure news generally drew praise from construction, transportation and union groups. Stephen Sandherr, Associated General Contractors of America CEO, said in a statement, “The president clearly understands that any new transportation bill must include new sources of revenue to meet the needs of our aging transportation system.”
But Sandherr added that “the most significant impact of these announcements should be to motivate Congress and the president to fix the Highway Trust Fund before this summer and to enact a new, fully funded, long-term measure before September 30.”
Bud Wright, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director, said, “"The crisis facing the Highway Trust Fund and our national transportation infrastructure is very real. It is good news that the Administration and congressional leadership in both houses are looking seriously at strategies to invest in transportation and maintain the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and the programs it supports."
Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said, "For too long, the duct-tape approach by Congress has destabilized the construction industry, stalled projects, cost jobs and slowed our economy. More discussion and debate is welcome, but ultimately there must be action....”
Pete Ruane, American Road & Transportation Builders Association president and CEO, said, "It is imperative that Congress and the president direct their energies at finding a Highway Trust Fund solution before the [DOT] is unable to reimburse states this summer for road and transit projects that have already been approved."
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.)—who is leading that chamber’s highway-transit bill push—said Camp’s Highway Trust Fund proposal “could play a meaningful role” in a new transportation measure.
Shuster also said he hopes Camp’s and Obama’s plans “will bring increased focus to the challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund and the importance of the federal role in our national transportation system.”
Along with his legislative proposal, Obama announced a new, sixth round of the TIGER grants. Congress approved $600 million for the program in fiscal 2014. DOT said the deadline for applications for round six is April 28.
Story updated on Feb. 27 with White House spokesman comments, additional links