When James B. Renacci was mayor of Wadsworth, Ohio, it was clear that a bridge over Interstate 76 had to be widened. The cost then was $18 million, and the city ponied up to cover its 10 percent share, with the federal Highway Trust Fund expected to cover the rest.
A dozen years later, Renacci is now a third-term Republican congressman, the bridge still hasn’t been widened, and the price tag has nearly doubled to more than $30 million — the result, Renacci believes, to a broken federal funding system.
“You can multiply that thousands of times across this country,” he said recently. “This is one little city in one little state.”
More than 30 times over the past six years, Congress has passed short-term extensions of transportation funding thanks to deep divisions about how to finance the needed investments. The last long-term bill, for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years, lapsed nearly a year ago.
With another deadline approaching later this month and despite big talk of a long-term solution, lawmakers appear poised to again patch spending for a matter of months rather than years.
Renacci, who holds a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee, has a bipartisan plan that would fully fund the nation’s transportation needs for 10 years or more. But that plan relies on a series of small increases to the 18.4-cent federal gas tax to fund new projects — or at least compel lawmakers to find another funding source. And that is considered a non-starter by leaders of both parties.
“Let me just say, we’re not going to raise the gas tax,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week, repeating for emphasis: “We’re not going to raise the gas tax.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democrat, also threw cold water on the notion: “While there are some individual members who support a gas tax, the vast majority of both parties do not,” he said.
Instead, key congressional Republicans are seeking to once again cobble together funding from various sources to keep $53 billion in transportation projects moving forward at least through the year’s end and perhaps through the remainder of the Obama administration. They have largely conceded, however, that there is no politically palatable way to fund a long-term bill, such as the measure passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last month.
Hopes for a more permanent solution now rest on the possibility that transportation funding might be rolled into ambitious attempts at tax reform.
President Obama last year proposed taxing corporate profits currently held overseas to help pay for transportation needs, and the idea known as “deemed repatriation” picked up steam when Schumer and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) released a bipartisan proposal that would tax current overseas profits while also implementing a new system of taxing future profits earned abroad.
But House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has more ambitious plans for corporate tax reform, and wants to have until the end of the year to put a comprehensive proposal together.
The House voted 312 to 119 Wednesday to pass an $8 billion stopgap measure that would fund highway construction through Dec. 18, while also buying time for Ryan to complete work on a tax-reform proposal.
McConnell, meanwhile, is skeptical that Ryan, Schumer and Portman can craft a deal before the end of the year. He is pushing to extend highway funding at least into 2017, when he hopes Congress could deal with a Republican president more amenable to tax and transportation policy.
“The best way to deal with the tax code, in my view, is comprehensively,” he said Wednesday.
McConnell has asked chairmen of the Senate committees with jurisdiction over the highway bill — Energy, Commerce, Banking, Environment and Public Works, and Finance — to identify enough money for a long-term bill, either through offsetting savings or through revenue measures.
Although McConnell has indicated a desire to bring transportation legislation to the Senate floor as soon as this week, he has yet to release funding details.
Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) has said that his plan is to “do as many offsets and pay-fors as we can come up with to fund this thing out into the future . . . and get to a time, hopefully in 2017, where we have a new president that we can work with on tax reform.”
One potential source could be tapping the strategic oil reserve. The House passed legislation last week that would raise $7 billion by selling oil to pay for drug research at the National Institutes of Health, but the Senate Energy Committee could choose to skip the drug research bill and use that money instead for the highway bill.
Another option would be for the Commerce Committee to call on the Federal Communications Commission to sell off access to unused portions of federally controlled airwaves through a spectrum auction. Companies bid more than $30 billion in a spectrum auction last year, and access to the airwaves is still in high demand.
But lawmakers may balk if McConnell seeks to tap every available pot of money to fund highways. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said that nearly every committee has a long list of programs that need funding, and that it has become increasingly difficult to cobble together enough spending cuts to cover the costs.
“We’re looking in every corner for every pay-for,” he said. “It is just terribly difficult to find this kind of money, and we’re probably painted into the corner on a lot of different issues.”
Renacci said he has had some success convincing his constituents and even some of his most stridently conservative colleagues that increasing the gas tax for the first time since 1993 is the most responsible path to long-term transportation funding.
“If you use the roads, you should pay for them,” Renacci said. “The problem is, today, by doing nothing, we’re requiring people who aren’t even born yet to pay for the roads and bridges that we’re using.”
Congress has repeatedly voted to tap general fund revenue to plug Highway Trust Fund gaps, thus adding to the federal debt.
The first increase laid out in Renacci’s bill would add less than a penny to the cost of a gallon of gas and would provide sufficient funding for nearly two years of highway spending. The average driver, he said, would pay an additional $2.85 a year: “I call that one less latte on the highway.”
But pitfalls abound. Though Renacci and other backers tend to refer to the gas tax as a “user fee,” Americans for Tax Reform considers a vote for any increase to be a breach of its vaunted Taxpayer Protection Pledge because its proceeds also fund non-road projects such as public transportation.
Most Republicans, including Renacci, have signed the pledge, and although his bill, the Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act, has 32 co-sponsors, only eight are Republicans.
Thune said, “There’s just no appetite right now” for a gas-tax hike, even amid a stretch of low global oil prices. “The American people don’t want their taxes raised, and we’re going try to find other ways to do this.”