Funding for roads debated at congressional hearing

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WASHINGTON -- During a congressional hearing Tuesday, there was no disagreement about the need to improve the nation's highways, bridges and transportation systems. The challenge will be how to pay for it.

House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster, R-Blair, isn't ready to disclose the plan he's been working on privately.

"We've got to look at everything, and I'm not willing to say one thing or another until [we] identify the problems. I think funding them is a byproduct of that" process, he told reporters after a hearing Tuesday that included testimony from a governor, a mayor, a large manufacturer and a labor leader.

Funding options include increasing the gasoline tax, instituting mileage-based user fees, adding tolls, creating public-private partnerships and tapping the general fund, and Mr. Shuster said all are on the table.

The three-hour hearing was to launch debate about reauthorizing a surface transportation bill set to expire Sept. 30. Historically, transportation legislation has been approved more easily than other big-ticket spending, but Congress' partisan rancor could affect that passage.

"Some members of Congress aren't clear on how far we're falling behind" other nations in terms of infrastructure stability, Mr. Shuster said at the hearing.

Stakeholders testifying Tuesday say they were willing to help educate their various constituencies, and encourage them to lobby their representatives.

For the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Atlanta's Kasim Reed said, "Mayors across the United States of America are prepared in a truly bipartisan way to help you carry this water."

Lawrence Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, testified that flat federal aid, decreased local tax collections and a poor economy have created a transit crisis. Ninety percent of transit systems have cut services, raised fares or both.

Mr. Hanley also faulted Congress' bipartisan aversion to higher taxes for millionaires and rising economic inequality.

"The notion that you can't raise taxes to support transit service is walking against the will of the American people" who have repeatedly voted for increased transit spending," Mr. Hanley said. "They not only want more transit but are prepared to pay for it."

The National Governors Association seeks federal help, said its chairwoman, Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Mary Fallin. She said states and the federal government must partner to invest in quality infrastructure.

Stu Levenick, speaking for Caterpillar Inc., which makes construction and mining equipment, engines, turbines and locomotives, said "outdated and insufficient infrastructure" is harming U.S. global competitiveness. He said poor planning has left roads, bridges, rail lines and channels without enough capacity to handle traffic volume as well as the size and weight of major freight shipments.

"Compounding the congestion and deteriorating infrastructure of our roads, bridges and tunnels are the various and often-conflicting state regulations and permitting requirements with which we must comply," he said.

Mr. Levenick said those challenges had forced Caterpillar to move 40 percent of its imports and exports through Canadian ports, where passage is faster and less expensive.

Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., was among members who scorned his rationale. "I feel like you're part of the problem, not part of the solution," she said. "You're shipping 40 percent of your product to Canadian ports, so you are avoiding the harbor maintenance tax -- the very money we use to maintain our ports and harbors. You're avoiding it, and then you're complaining that our ports aren't dredged and our infrastructure isn't maintained."

Mr. Levenick said the company's decision was based on global economics. "We're one of the largest exporters in the United States and find it, frankly, crazy that we can't export efficiently on a global basis from U.S. ports," he said. "By no means are we abandoning U.S. ports. For the ports that we use today, we are paying taxes, and we'd like to see those taxes and those fees used for the kind of improvements you're talking about."

Mr. Shuster said the reauthorization should reduce regulatory burdens, provide agencies with flexibility to direct spending to projects they approve and improve freight mobility.

Today, the Obama administration will detail its funding priorities as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx addresses the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting.

He seeks authorization to clear an infrastructure projects backlog and rebuild the transportation system, said a department official. He is expected to say the nation is falling behind in global transportation rankings, and that the "infrastructure deficit" is as challenging as the fiscal deficit.

Transportation writer Jon Schmitz contributed. Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.


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