House Republicans and Democrats sang in unison Wednesday about the need to come up with a solution to the transportation crisis before funding runs out May 31, but the bipartisan chorus may face speed bumps over paying for transit systems, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
Reining in rural state lawmakers who want every penny of gas-tax revenue spent on roads and bridges will fall to Bill Shuster (R.-Pa.), chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure who held the gavel Wednesday as the 59-member committee quizzed Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about administration plans for a long-term transportation bill. Part of the White House proposal, which has yet to land on Capitol Hill, is a bump up in the money designated for upgrading and expanding transit systems.
“That’s very difficult for me to sell in North Carolina,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R.-N.C.), whose district includes 16 rural counties in the western tip of the state, “because most of the transit money has gone to six cities that are not in North Carolina.”
Foxx countered with a grin.
“Is Charlotte still in North Carolina?” he joked. Foxx is the former mayor of that city of 800,000.
The battle over how scarce dollars from the rapidly dwindling Highway Trust Fund should be spent first emerged three years ago as the House considered what would become a two-year surface transportation bill that has been extended until the end of May.
Congressmen who represented states outside of the megalopolises that include Chicago and the East and West Coasts challenged using cash from the trust fund for anything but roadways. Their effort was blunted and ultimately defeated when Republicans and Democrats from cities and suburban areas joined forces.
Almost half of the House transportation committee, including many who want decision making taken out of federal hands, won election after that battle was fought.
“It’s distressing to folks when they see a large bike project — 10 miles of bike trails — when we can’t get the bridges fixed,” said Brian Babin (R.-Tex.), who represents eight rural counties northeast of Houston.
That played into a concept central to Foxx’s thinking. Foxx, who has joined Shuster in a bipartisan alliance to get a highway bill passed, last month came out with a 30-year outline for the nation’s transportation future, a document he hopes will engender discussion about the future.
“I don’t think we should plan for a [transportation] system that’s 1956. We should plan for 2045,” Foxx said.
He cited demographic shifts that have more people moving to urban hubs, many of them to downtown core areas that were abandoned by their parents a generation ago.
“I think the small amount we’re putting into bike and pedestrian [projects] is worth it,” he said. “I think the mistake is [to think] that transit isn’t critical.”
Foxx said the forthcoming administration transportation proposal would add $478 billion to spending levels over the next six years.
“Against what we need, it’s not such a big number,” he said, referring to estimates of a need for trillions of infrastructure investment. “Remember that others are calling for far more. We need to set the ceiling [for investment], not the floor.”
The question of where the money will come from — $62 billion in general tax revenue has been needed since 2008 to bolster the highway trust fund — was a question on everyone’s minds.
“We’re all like a bunch of dogs circling around a skunk,” said Rep. Don Young (R.-Alaska). “The skunk is how we’re going to fund this program. No one has addressed the question of funding.”