President Obama's former transportation secretary continues to publicly champion a tax increase he mostly avoided as a member of the cabinet.
Ray LaHood, the Illinois Republican who served seven terms in the U.S. House before becoming the nation’s transportation chief in 2009, repeated his call for Congress and the president to agree to raise the federal gas tax, last increased in 1993 to $.18 per gallon, by ten cents and index it to inflation, during an on-the-record roundtable discussion with reporters on Wednesday.
LaHood was speaking for the first time since accepting his first post-cabinet position as co-chair of Building America’s Future (BAF), a group that supports raising the tax to replenish the Highway Trust Fund that is on its way to insolvency.
“If people are afraid that the electorate is going to heap some kind of retribution on them if they raise the tax, they need to look at cities and states that have done it, where it has passed,” LaHood said. “The people get it, they know when they raise the gas tax or the sales tax that potholes are going to be filled, bridges are going to be fixed, roads are going to be fixed, and friends and neighbors are going to go to work.”
During LaHood’s tenure as transportation secretary, the Obama administration publicly opposed raising the federal fuel tax to pay for road and transit maintenance and improvements.
LaHood was joined by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat and fellow co-chair of BAF, who discussed a wide range of transportation and infrastructure funding issues. They emphasized that national politicians should follow the example of cities and states that have passed referendums to pay for infrastructure projects on the premise of job creation.
On Congress passing a transportation spending bill
LaHood: “That is what the country needs to get the economy moving, to create jobs, to create opportunities, to put friends and neighbors to work, and to get America back to being #1 in infrastructure. I think we are #16 right now. If you look at what cities and states are doing, they are passing referendums. They are funding infrastructure. They are taking care of their needs. They are filling potholes and rebuilding bridges. Congress needs to get that kind of message.”
Rendell: “As recently as 2004 the World Economic Forum rated the United States’ infrastructure – and that is everything, not just transportation – rated us #1. Last year we were rated 16th among the countries of the world, and in key things having to do with transportation, our air transport infrastructure ranked 32nd in the world, our ports 22nd in the world, and our rail, both freight and passenger, 18th in the world. That’s unacceptable.”
On convincing national politicians to raise the gas tax
LaHood: “President Reagan raised the gas tax. That has been forgotten, but he did. And they passed a transportation bill. President Clinton raised the gas tax, and half of it went to deficit reduction. Maybe if that is the way to get conservative Republicans to buy into it, so be it. We don’t have the money now to do all the things we need to do to get back to being #1.”
Rendell: “Wyoming with a Republican governor and two Republican houses passed an increase of $.15 per gallon in their gas tax. In my own state, Governor Corbett took a Grover Norquist pledge in the campaign, but he just signed a tax that is not levied at the pump … but will be passed onto consumers. Over five years it will go up $.32 in Pennsylvania. The increases in gas taxes are taking place in red states and blue states.”
On President Obama’s opposition to raising the tax
LaHood:. “We need leadership from all over the country. We need leadership from every corner of this city. We need leadership from the administration. But I will say this: for four and a half years the President put forward a big, bold budget for transportation.”
Rendell: “What BAF has urged the president to do is to form a commission, give it 90 or 120 days to come up with long-term financing for a long-term, ten-year infrastructure revitalization program. Bring in the best people from academics, the best practitioners, the best transportation people… and put the best ideas together. We need to raise the gas tax but we also need an infrastructure bank or a financing authority to use credit enhancement to get the private sector to come roaring into infrastructure repair.”
On whether a greater percentage of federal dollars should pay for transit vs. roads
Rendell: “It’s coming, more and more of the funds going to transit. The number of people applying for a driver’s license at the age of 16 is down. Young people are living in cities and they don’t want cars. They want good systems of transportation. Like a lot of changes in America – gay marriage didn’t come from politicians, it came from the public – I think the public will drive this themselves.
Should federal dollars be spent on new highways that may only provide short-term congestion relief?
LaHood: “It’s up to the states to decide how to use the money.”
Rendell: “We still have to build more roads. Since 1980, the number of vehicles on the road in America has increased by 104 percent and over that same period our lane miles have increased by four percent. So obviously we need to build additional lanes. Even if we shift to a more mass transit-oriented society… we are so far behind right now in our highway miles compared to the increase in traffic, we do need to build expanded roads. We need to do this with a well thought out, national plan.”