Maryland congressman Delaney gains bipartisan traction on infrastructure funding

The hallowed wisdom on Capitol Hill is that freshmen should be seen, not heard. That’s a notion that clearly doesn’t appeal to Maryland rookie John Delaney, and the Democrat from Montgomery County seems to be making powerful friends, not enemies, with his upstart behavior.

A bipartisan effort to find new funding for roads, bridges and transit that he launched in the House last spring gathered momentum last week when two senators — one a Republican and the other a Democrat — introduced a companion bill in their chamber Friday.

“I’m proud to support this bipartisan bill, which will help communities across America improve infrastructure and compete in the global economy,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

One of the oft-heard laments as Congress has devolved into partisan trench warfare has been that, among all others, transportation historically was a bipartisan issue. While there was enough agreement in 2012 to cobble together a two-year transportation bill — supported by patchwork funding — the consensus of years past was notably absent.

Now comes Delaney, 50, who got rich as chief executive of a health-care-funding company before he turned to politics. What he is proposing is dynamic, but that pales in contrast with the red-blue support that is forming behind it.

Twenty-five Republicans and 25 Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors in the House, among them Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), James P. Moran (D-Va.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.). Blunt and Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) have taken the lead in their chamber, with support from five Republicans and three Democrats, including Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).

The bill is an attempt to address twin problems: How to fund transportation with the traditional source — the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon — at death’s door. And how to entice U.S. corporations, which have stashed an estimated $1.45 trillion abroad, to bring that money home.

Delaney’s plan would create a $50 billion federal fund to bankroll loans and leverage private investment for transportation and other infrastructure. The money would come from bonds bought by companies who want a tax break if they bring cash earned abroad back to the United States.

“We were very careful in having conversations with key leaders on both sides of the aisle,” Delaney said when he launched the bill last year. “In all of those conversations, we were encouraged to move forward with the bill. We received a lot of green lights.”

One of those conversations was with Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who plays a pivotal role on the House side as chairman of the transportation committee. Shuster last week reiterated his feeling that “everything is on the table” in the search for funding as the Highway Trust Fund faces bankruptcy and the current transportation bill is set to expire Nov. 1.

He called the Delaney bill “another idea.”

“It’s potentially another tool in the tool box,” Shuster said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the solution, but it’s going to take a little bit of everything.”

If Congress is to continue transportation funding at it’s current level — far below the amount experts say is needed to arrest a steep decline in the nation’s infrastructure — it has to choose among several unsavory options.

The current bill was supported by a massive transfer of money from the general tax fund that few on Capitol Hill want to continue.

A 10-to-20-cent increase in the gas tax and indexing that tax to keep pace with inflation would provide a short-term fix. But with a federal mandate in place to increase average mileage to 54.5 a gallon by 2025, that seems likely to fall short over the long haul.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who brokered the last transportation bill compromise, favors following the lead of some states that have replaced their gas tax with a sales tax collected from oil producers at the wholesale level. Other options on the table include permitting additional tolling on interstates and moving toward a system that charges drivers for each mile they travel.

The Obama administration is on record as favoring corporate tax changes as a means to new transportation revenue.

If funding remains static in the next transportation bill, there might be a greater shift to state and local money — with the help of private partners — to pay for transportation improvement and expansion.

“The American people expect us to work together and find solutions, and that’s the spirit behind this legislation,” Delaney said last week. “It’s clear that we have to upgrade our crumbling roads and bridges and that we must do so in a fiscally responsible manner.”

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Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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