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Momemtum builds on federal government, states to deal with aging roads, bridges

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer has reintroduced his proposal to increase the federal gasoline tax by 5 cents during each of the next three years as momentum builds for doing something about the nation’s aging roads and bridges.

Blumenauer, a Democrat from Portland, sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, the House’s tax-writing panel.

Even though Republicans have majorities in both chambers of Congress, Blumenauer says the time is right to do something to shore up the nation’s surface transportation system.

Blumenauer said in a statement on HR 680 on Wednesday:

“There’s a broad and persuasive coalition that stands ready to support Congress, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, national AFL-CIO, the construction and trucking industry, cyclists, professional groups, numerous associations of small and medium businesses, local governments, and transit agencies. We just need to give them something to support.”

The most recent increase in the federal tax occurred in 1993, when it went from 14 cents to 18.4 cents. Two previous increases in 1983 and 1990 were passed by Democratic congressional majorities and signed by Republican presidents.

Republicans have been divided over an increase.

Some oppose an increase and say it’s time for the federal government to turn over more responsibility for highways to the states.

Others say it’s time for Congress to authorize transportation spending on a long-term basis — it has continued since 2009 on a series of short-term extensions, the latest of which will end in mid-May — and that there is a shared responsibility with the states.

Blumenauer says the current tax is not sufficient to replenished the federal highway trust fund, and Congress has transferred $65 billion from the income-tax-supported general fund to keep the highway fund solvent.

“Every credible independent report indicates that we are not meeting the demands of our stressed and decaying infrastructure system – roads, bridges and transit,” Blumenauer says. “Congress hasn’t dealt seriously with the funding issue for over 20 years and it’s time to act.”

Action in states

Blumenauer’s announcement coincided with the release of a report by Transportation for America, a national group of elected officials, business and civic leaders, about successful efforts in 13 states since 2012 to raise more money for transportation work.

Oregon and Washington are among a number of states considering their options this year.

“Oregon has lots of company this year,” says Chris Rall, Northwest field organizer based in Portland for Transportation for America.

“With infrastructure decaying with age, the long economic slump has left a huge legacy of unmet needs, even as federal aid has become less dependable. Metro regions battling congestion are queuing up for transit dollars and cities and towns are scouring for money to make walking and biking safer options.

“No surprise, then, that no fewer than nine governors so far have called for raising transportation revenue in their state of the state speeches.”

While Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber did not specify a financing plan for transportation projects in his Jan. 12 inaugural, he did refer to his support of the Oregon Business Plan, which does list money for transportation improvements as one of its three goals for the year.

Although Democrats have majorities in both chambers of the Oregon Legislature, they will need at least one Republican vote in the House for the 60 percent required to approve revenue-raising measures.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, also says Republican support is vital to avert any attempt to force a statewide election on such increases.

Oregon's gasoline tax since 2011 is 30 cents per gallon.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has laid out a $12 billion transportation plan, to be paid for by new taxes on carbon polluters.

The Transportation for America report lists seven common elements among the six states it studied for successful transportation financing plans. Those elements were local priority-setting, transparency and accountability for projects, a fair distribution of money to cities and rural areas, support from the governor, broad-based coalitions, new revenue-generating mechanisms, and appropriate messengers and messages to the public about why transportation matters.

But the report concludes that state action along is not enough:

“It is important to note that all of the states that have acted thus far, and those working to do so this year or beyond, are doing so in expectation of ongoing federal support.

“Governors and legislators have acted because states face growing needs and static or falling revenues. The situation has been made worse by federal funding that has remained flat as costs have risen, and could grow disastrously worse should Congress reduce federal support in the upcoming renewal of the national program.”

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