TRANSPORTATION:

Boxer asks for White House help on highway extension compromise

With the ongoing congressional stalemate over the next highway bill beginning to take its toll on state road and transit projects, a key senator yesterday urged the Obama administration to step in and help broker a compromise.

"We need your help on this standoff," Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told two top Transportation Department officials that she had summoned to brief her committee.

Boxer's comments came one day after she and six other committee leaders and ranking members -- including EPW Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- relented on their ongoing effort to punt the next multiyear highway and transit bill into 2011 and instead called for a shorter, six-month extension that would continue current federal spending until June 2010.

Both the original 18-month extension and the latest six-month proposal have run into several roadblocks, most notably the steadfast opposition of House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who has derailed any effort to extend the current highway law beyond the end of this calendar year.

"I, so far, have lost the battle; I can't convince the House," Boxer said. "We've dialed it back 12 months, I'm not happy about it, but at the minimum we have to do this."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was the first this summer to call for the 18-month extension, and while that remains the administration's preference, DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari conceded yesterday that the six-month proposal would be better than a continuation of a series of smaller stopgap measures that lawmakers have used to continue federal transportation spending, albeit at a decreased rate.

The current continuing resolution is set to expire Dec. 18, and lawmakers will need to come to some type of an agreement on transportation spending before then. Still, Porcari made no assurances that LaHood or the White House would pressure the House to sign on to the six-month plan.

The current multiyear highway law -- which provides the bulk of federal funding for the nation's highways and transit systems -- expired at the end of September, but federal spending has continued under a pair of continuing resolutions that include funding for a number of other federal programs.

But because of an accounting provision included in the last highway law, states can spend roughly 30 percent less federal cash than they would under a formal extension, Porcari said.

That is because the baseline funding levels in the stopgap transportation measures are set at fiscal 2009 levels, the year that an $8.7 billion rescission occurred for transportation funding. The total accrued over several years as states were required to set aside a portion of their annual spending to create budget flexibility, but the full rescission technically only affected fiscal 2009 spending levels.

Roy Kienitz, DOT undersecretary of policy, said the decrease in funding has affected each state differently but that more severe funding shortages would occur in the spring, when states traditionally see more road construction. "That's when the problems would kick in," he said.

For most of the summer, Oberstar had threatened to block any stopgap transportation measure as a way to pressure lawmakers to focus on his six-year, $500 billion proposal. However, when it became apparent that his bill would not see floor time before the end of September he backed down and instead pushed a three-month extension of the law through the House.

But the Senate never signed off on the plan, and Oberstar has since refused to give any additional ground in the extension debate.

Gas tax

The driving force behind the need to postpone the next highway bill is that lawmakers have yet to find a way to pay for what is expected to be a substantial increase in federal infrastructure investment.

Off the Hill, there is near universal consensus among transportation experts that increasing the gas tax is necessary in the short-term to pay for both road maintenance and new construction projects. But very few lawmakers have been willing to even float the idea for fear of the political consequences.

The White House has routinely dismissed the idea of a gas tax hike at a time when the U.S. economy is hurting. Oberstar, likewise, has stressed he is not calling for an immediate tax hike to fund his $500 billion proposal -- despite accusation from House GOP leaders that he plans to in the future (E&E Daily, Sept. 24).

Boxer appeared to fuel that speculation yesterday, describing the House philosophy as: "Let's just bring it to a crisis point, then we'll go double the gas tax and solve the whole problem."

Boxer, who also opposes a near-term gas tax hike, said imposing one would be nearly impossible. "I don't have the votes on this committee to do that, let alone [in] the rest of the Senate," she said.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) -- the sole EPW Committee member to oppose the original 18-month proposal -- has been one of the few lawmakers to vocally call for the tax hike, arguing the public is more willing to face the reality than the politicians.

"Most people in the House and the Senate are all worried about a vote on an increase in the gas tax," Voinovich said. "They are, and you can't do it without that, there just aren't any other [short-term funding] alternatives."

Voinovich, who is retiring when is current term ends in 2010, said that he has talked with GOP leadership in both chambers to urge them to drop their opposition.

"I've said to them that it is time that we did something on behalf of our country and stop playing politics and stop worrying if we are going to elect more Republicans the next time around, and if we can take a shot at the other side by saying they are voting for tax increases," he said.

Likewise, Voinovich said Democrats need to stop playing their own politics with the issue. They need to stop "saying, 'I can't support this thing because, you know, if I do that, they're going to shove it down my throat,'" he said.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), also an EPW Committee member, took a softer approach to the gas tax hike earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Carper said that he had broached the idea of a small gas tax increase with party leaders himself but that it failed to gain traction. "After I finished, I noticed that pretty much everyone around the table had their heads down," he said at a public policy briefing. "So I don't think they grabbed it right away. But I'm persistent and will keep coming back to it."