Speaking today at the Key Bridge in Washington, DC, President Obama called on Congress to save the Highway Trust Fund from its pending insolvency, and to adopt a long-term transportation bill on the scale of his proposed four-year, $302 billion program. [Full text here.]
In doing so, he retraced the bipartisan history of transportation funding in the U.S.:
Soon, construction workers will be on the job making the Key Bridge safer for commuters and for families, and even for members of Congress to cross. (Laughter.) This is made possible by something called the Highway Trust Fund, which Congress established back in the 1950s, and which helps states repair and rebuild our infrastructure all across the country. It’s an example of what can happen when Washington just functions the way it was supposed to.
Back then, you had Eisenhower, a Republican President; over time you would have Democratic Presidents, Democratic and Republican members of Congress all recognizing building bridges and roads and levees and ports and airports — that none of that is a partisan issue. That’s making sure that America continues to progress.
Now, here is the problem. Here is the reason we’re here in the heat. If this Congress does not act by the end of the summer, the Highway Trust Fund will run out. There won’t be any money there. All told, nearly 700,000 jobs could be at risk next year. That would be like Congress threatening to lay off the entire population of Denver, or Seattle, or Boston.
That’s a lot of people. It would be a bad idea. Right now, there are more than 100,000 active projects across the country where workers are paving roads, and rebuilding bridges, and modernizing our transit systems. And soon, states may have to choose which projects to continue and which ones to put the brakes on because they’re running out of money. Some have already done just that, just because they’re worried that Congress will not get its act together in time.
We spend significantly less as a portion of our economy than China does, than Germany does, than just about every other advanced country. They know something that I guess we don’t, which is that’s the path to growth, that’s the path to competitiveness.
We share the President’s frustration at the lack of progress, but we are encouraged by recent glimmers of bipartisan interest in a solution. Just last week we saw a bipartisan proposal for a long-term solution in the form of a 12-cent gas tax increase over two years. To us, that is far preferable to a last-minute accounting trick to get us through the election, which seems to be the betting of conventional wisdom at the moment. And it strikes us more sustainable than the one-time infusion from a tax holiday for offshore profits the Administration has proposed.
Still, we are glad to see the President use his bully pulpit to call attention to an issue that remains something of a sleeper for a public largely unaware that the trust fund that their safety, convenience and economy depend on is seriously threatened.