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Foxx: Lame Duck Session An Opportunity To Fix Highway Trust Fund

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says the upcoming lame duck session is an opportunity for the Highway Trust Fund.
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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says the upcoming lame duck session is an opportunity for the Highway Trust Fund.

The Obama administration’s top transportation official said the coming lame duck session of Congress will present an opportunity to pass an elusive multi-year road and transit funding bill to end the cycle of short-term patches that keep the Highway Trust Fund from going broke.

In an interview with WAMU 88.5, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, in the midst of another national tour to tout the administration’s Grow America Act, said there are signs of bipartisan support to solve this recurring problem.

“We have heard Speaker Boehner and budget chairman Paul Ryan indicating that they think a transportation bill can get done,” Sec. Foxx said. “There continues to be a bipartisan interest in figuring a way forward. We are going to have to get through these elections and get Congress back in Washington to see how far we can take it.”

There may be consensus on the importance of establishing a national transportation funding program, but there is little agreement on how to pay for it. The administration’s preferred solution, the Grow America Act, is a four-year, $302 billion proposal that would be partly funded through corporate tax reform.

Members of both the House and Senate have floated a variety of proposals, but none has had enough support to pass, including any plan that called for an increase in gas taxes. The Obama administration has opposed raising the federal fuel tax ($.18/gallon), last increased in 1993.

“The way that we pay for Grow America, through business tax reform, increasingly looks like a better idea. At the same time, we've said all along that we are willing to listen to other ideas that emerge from Congress,” said Sec. Foxx.

Most observers do not expect a lame duck Congress to take on transportation spending before January.

Emil Frankel, a former assistant secretary of transportation under George W. Bush, said he does not expect Congress to approve a long-term highway/transit bill until after the next president is inaugurated in 2017.

“If the Republicans have taken control of the Senate in the elections, why should they do something that significant in the lame duck session? And even if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, I think the logistics are overwhelming,” said Frankel, now a policy expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington research group.

Frankel said none of the transportation funding proposals of the past several months, including the administration’s, is viable.

“[Congress] can't pass a bill because they don't have the funding for it,” said Frankel, who said approving corporate tax reform simply may be too time-consuming for a short, lame duck session.

“The basics of investing in transportation infrastructure remain an area of consensus, but not the funding part of it. Some people in both parties have talked about increasing the gasoline tax, but that continues to be opposed by everyone including the administration,” he added.

Despite such pessimism, Secretary Foxx continues to travel the country, meeting local Democrat and Republican elected officials and chambers of commerce, hammering home the message that short-term patches to the Highway Trust Fund are the wrong way to pay for transportation in a nation with a growing population and crumbling roads and bridges.

“I don't think we are going to find ourselves in a better moment to do something than we will over the next few months,” he said.

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