The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Officials use decrepit bridges, highways to make their point

Infrastructure once was like the federal deficit: Everybody knew it was important, but few people understood it. Now — when it’s described in terms of deteriorating roads and bridges — more people get it, but are they ready to cough up more cash to pay to resurrect it?

With Congress in recess, this has become a big week for selling Americans on the desirability of investing more of their tax dollars in things that are falling apart.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has led several committee members and transportation directors from five states in a barnstorming swing across his home state, Pennsylvania, posing frequently for the cameras in front of decrepit bridges and highways.

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) has continued his conversations on transportation funding with constituents in his House district, which spans from Montgomery County to the West Virginia border.

And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) is part of a bipartisan coalition said to number about 60 mayors that will push Thursday to get Congress to pass a long-term transportation bill this year. They’re also appealing to the American public.

“We recognize that there’s a lack of knowledge in just how bad it is,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “People experience it in their own lives, but the fact that it is such a pervasive problem and a problem that endangers our economic future, I don’t think that’s well known. And that’s part of what were trying to do here.”

De Blasio plans to pop out of the subway, which he often rides to work, to share his concerns about infrastructure decay. Transit is vital to his city, so part of the mayor’s pitch will be to ensure it’s fully funded in the next transportation bill.

“Our mass-transit needs are particularly intense because of the number of people we serve daily, but we also have profound road and bridge problems like so much of the rest of the country,” he said.

It's crunch time, because funding runs out May 31, just as the big summer repair and construction season gets rolling in cold-weather states. Few but the pie-eyed optimists think Congress will meet that deadline, but there is hope that a bill could be achieved after a brief extension.

While transportation is a critical concern to many on Capitol Hill and the vast commercial enterprises that rely upon it, selling the American public on new or different taxation to pay for it is a greater challenge.

The Bridge to Nowhere is fixed in lore as the icon for wasteful highway spending; most people seem to think roadways function reasonably well most of the time, and the anecdote about a frog sitting in a pot as the water around him comes to a boil seems an apt metaphor for traffic congestion.

In about 150 other cities, mayors and other officials will do stand-ups in front of bridges that need replacement and congested highways to make the point. The mayors say they'll descend on Washington on May 11 to lobby Congress, but the attention they get Thursday will be played out on television, in print and online to the public at large.

Shuster said the message he has gotten during his tour through Pennsylvania is that officials and business people desperately want a five- or six-year transportation bill that will provide stability when they look to launch multiyear projects. He said the best and quickest way to pay for that is by providing corporate tax breaks to bring home $2 trillion in cash that U.S. companies have stashed off shore.

Delaney has been pushing legislation to do that.

“Our [repatriation] pay-for doesn’t get us away from user fees, but it helps us transition to a more sustainable user fee,” he said.

The need for investment, he said, isn’t lost on the public.

“They totally get it,” Delaney said. “Paying for it is a problem, because while people like the user fee concept they also feel they’re paying enough in taxes. So that’s where it gets tough.”

Repatriation is a fix that would be pain-free for the average American, but even Delaney's elaborate proposal would not provide a long-term supplement for declining federal gas tax revenue brought on primarily by vehicles that sip the gasoline they once guzzled.

Shuster said in his travel across Pennsylvania and other states he has heard a clear message.

“They say you’ve got to do a long-term bill and that the federal government has to be part of the solution,” he said.

Selling the public on a new form of a pay-as-you-go user fee, or turning to general tax revenue instead, may be postponed if repatriation funds the next transportation bill.

“Let’s do a five- or six-year bill and then let’s start a really rigorous debate about what we’re going to do for the next 20 or 30 years, because we can’t sustain the revenues now,” Shuster said. “We’re going to be driving electric cars, cars that get 50 to 60 miles a gallon. We’ve got to figure a different way to [fund] it that’s palatable to the American people but makes the investment in infrastructure that we need.”