The Obama administration finally has released an outline of its long-awaited, multi-year surface transportation proposal. At $555.9 billion it is nearly double the size of the last authorization, the 2005 SAFETEA-LU law.
Long-time transportation and construction officials quickly zeroed in on what was missing: where the money will come from.
When DOT Secretary Ray LaHood met with reporters at department headquarters on Feb. 14 to discuss the 2012 budget request and the outline of the bill, he was asked two or three times about the funding.
LaHood noted that the Highway Trust Fund is available to provide some of the money. But he dodged the issue of where the rest would come from. "We're going to work with Congress on this, on the 'pay for'," he said.
LaHood added, "This is the president's vision. So we're going to work with Congress on what their vision is, and then figure out how we pay for it.".
Roy Kienitz, DOT under secretary for policy, acknowledged, "Obviously there's a difference between the amount coming in now and the amount needed to fund this program--and a non-trivial number--and..as the Secretary said, the goal is to work with the leadership in the committees and see if a consensus can be found."
The current funding gap is indeed large. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in August that the Highway Trust Fund's revenue and interest for the six-year period 2012 through 2017 would be $252 billion. That leaves the administration $304 billion short of the envisioned bill's $556-billion total.
What about raising the federal motor-fuels tax, the trust fund's prime revenue source? The White House and LaHood have said for months that they oppose increasing that tax, and LaHood said that stance hasn't changed.
He said, "There are many people in the country that are without work. There are many people in the country that are hurting economically. This administration has said time and time again that we are not in favor of raising the gas tax when we have a lousy economy."
Many lawmakers in Congress also oppose a gas-tax hike.
Despite the daunting financing problem, LaHood, a long time House member, who spent six years on the chamber's transportation committee, said he was optimistic about the surface transportation proposal's chances.
He said, "I believe transportation is about the most bipartisan subject you can talk about in Washington. It has been in the past. I believe it will be this year because every member of Congress has somebody in their district who is out of work, who could be working, building a road or bridge" or in transit or high-speed rail.