The White House began an ambitious week-long effort Monday to focus public attention on a pair of pressing national problems: the decay of roads, bridges and transit systems and Congress’s inability to come up with money to fix them.
Bolstered with repackaged data on the potential of infrastructure investment to create jobs, President Obama has scheduled side trips to Virginia and Delaware this week to spotlight innovative solutions.
He is attempting to ratchet up the pressure on Congress, which is wrestling to find cash to keep transportation projects rolling through the summer construction season while it searches for a long-term funding solution. White House officials warn that nearly 700,000 jobs could be jeopardized if the Highway Trust Fund runs short of cash.
The effort marks a subtle shift by the administration, adopting a more aggressive approach on an issue on which it had hoped Congress would take the lead. Although the administration proposed a $302 billion transportation funding package in April, suggesting corporate tax reform to pay for it, and has raised the possibility of allowing more tolls on interstates, its underlying message has signaled an openness to all funding options.
Privately, senior administration officials have suggested a reluctance to push specific funding proposals for fear that Republicans will oppose any option the White House appears to favor.
Obama voiced frustration with his GOP adversaries last week when he told reporters, “If I sponsor a bill declaring apple pie American, it might fall victim to partisan politics.”
Although the president prefers raising money for infrastructure through tax reform — which has little chance of moving on Capitol Hill this year — his focus on the issue this week suggests that he is willing to wade deeper into the fray.
“The president believes so strongly in the importance of keeping the Highway Trust Fund solvent that we would certainly entertain other proposals,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “We’ve been very clear about what we think is the best way to do this. We’d like to see some support from members of Congress for it. But if there are other ideas that people want to put forward, [we’re] open to considering them as well.”
Obama will announce new executive actions this week aimed at spurring more private investment in infrastructure projects, White House officials said. On Tuesday, he will visit the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va., a transportation test facility. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to discuss the impact of climate change on the nation’s roads and bridges. On Thursday, he plans to visit an infrastructure site in Delaware.
The White House also will try to leverage social media to increase pressure on lawmakers. It released an interactive transportation map Monday that allows people to see the age and condition of roads and bridges in their communities. Users will be able to post pictures and descriptions.
The administration’s urgency has been in evidence on Capitol Hill since Congress returned from the July 4 recess last week facing two problems. Although federal transportation spending is authorized until Oct. 1 under current legislation, the fund used to pay for it is forecast to run short of cash next month.
The House and the Senate are considering proposals to shift money from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund after the November midterm elections. The larger problem is coming up with a long-term transportation bill, and Democrats are insisting that Congress should tackle that in the December lame-duck session. Republicans, who hope to make gains in the election, argue that the temporary funding patch should extend until May.
What’s clear is that the status quo can’t be maintained.
Most of the trust fund’s money comes from an 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax that has not been raised since 1993. Inflation and fuel-efficient vehicles have reduced the cash flow from the tax to the point that it will be unable to cover the bills as soon as next month.
Without other funding, the Congressional Budget Office said, the options are to reduce spending on roads by 30 percent and on transit by 65 percent; raise the gas tax by 10 to 15 cents per gallon; or transfer $18 billion from the general tax fund. Keeping funding at current levels for the next six years is estimated to cost about $100 billion more than the trust fund will bring in.
The long-term fixes Congress has entertained include increasing the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, giving tax breaks to U.S. corporations that have billons parked offshore to encourage them to bring that money back, reforming corporate tax laws, diverting income-tax dollars to transportation, taxing fuel at the refinery rather than the pump, allowing more tolls on interstates and charging people for every mile they drive.