At hearing on crumbling infrastructure, money is the theme

Hours after President Obama asked Congress to address “an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair,” the gavel came down Wednesday on a House hearing at which committee members were told:

●The nation’s infrastructure will require a lot more money.

●The federal gas tax should go up — maybe double — but isn’t the ultimate answer.

●It’s time to let states collect tolls on federal interstates.

●Americans eventually will pay for every mile they drive.

●And somebody needs to start selling them on all of the above.

The message was delivered by a union leader, a business leader and a Democratic former governor in testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The panel, chaired by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), will be the central arena in the House for grappling with three mega-bills that could hold the future of transportation infrastructure.

Shuster hopes to fashion a reauthorization bill in the spring for ports and inland waterways, followed by a railroads bill. His committee will also deal with the big surface transportation bill — covering roads, bridges and transit — that expires at the end of September 2014.

That Shuster chose infrastructure for his first public meeting as the committee’s chairman underscored its importance, and the politically diverse trio he invited to testify may indicate his hope to revive bipartisanship, which went missing amid the acrimonious finger-pointing in the last Congress.

“The one thing we can’t do is neglect the problem,” said Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “I promise you, it will not get any better if we just sit here and look at it. We’ve got to raise more money.”

He said that the chamber would support a federal gas tax increase until a better source of dedicated funding could be agreed on and that all options should be considered.

“Closing the gap on needs and resources is just going to require good old-fashioned leadership,” he said.

While Donohue said he might not be in lock step with the two other panelists — former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell (D) and Laborers’ International Union President Terry O’Sullivan — all three men said they disagree with those who want to give responsibility for transportation to state and local governments.

“The challenge we are facing is beyond the capacity of any one city, any one county or any one state,” O’Sullivan said.

Rendell, who co-chairs the nonprofit Building America’s Future, agreed: “We haven’t had a national transportation plan since President Eisenhower built the interstates.”

But, Donohue said, “you’re not going to get anywhere until you figure out a way to give this committee a bigger chunk of money to do its job.”

“Money,” responded Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.), the committee’s ranking Democrat. “That’s the big elephant in the room. Where we need some help is developing the public will, and I don’t think that’s going to come from this institution.”

Just how much money was calculated in a series of reports by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which concluded last month that a $2.7 trillion investment in transportation and other infrastructure is needed by 2020 if the Unites States is to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

“We talk too much about the money and not enough about the benefits,” Donohue said. “It’s insane not to say, ‘This is the cost of doing business.’ ”

Rendell argued that it would be a better deal to charge drivers an additional $120 in user fees and spend the money on reducing congestion, rather than having them pay $200 for gas wasted idling in traffic.

“I’m a hard-nosed fiscal conservative,” said freshman Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), “but we’ve got to spend more money on infrastructure.”

Shuster latched on to a phrase that came up repeatedly in witness testimony and in comments from committee members: the need to find common-sense solutions to fund and expedite an infrastructure resurrection.

“We have to figure out how to legislate common sense,” Shuster said. “I don’t know that I know how to do that.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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