- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—WASHINGTON — House Republicans rebuffed their Senate counterparts Monday over must-pass highway legislation, setting the two chambers on a collision course days ahead of a crucial deadline in the midst of the summer driving season with thousands of jobs in the balance.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood drove the campaign to raise the federal gas tax to fund highway construction to Dayton Monday, urging Congress to raise the federal gas tax by 10 cents to fund long-term highway construction.

In the latest round of what seems an endless saga of figuring out how to pay for roads and bridges, Congress faces a July 31 deadline to pass a transportation bill before the money runs out.

As House members convened for their final days of work before an annual August recess, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy ruled out taking up the Senate’s highway bill, which is headed for completion in the next several days.

“We’re not taking up the Senate bill,” the California Republican told reporters at the Capitol, adding that the Senate should instead take up the bill already passed by the House. “My best advice to the Senate is to get our highway bill moved forward,” he said.

The House bill is a five-month extension of current programs while the Senate’s version authorizes $350 billion in transportation programs for six years, though only three of those are paid for.

Authority for federal highway aid payments to states will expire Friday at midnight without action. At the same time, if Congress doesn’t act before then the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to drop below a minimum cushion of $4 billion that’s necessary to keep aid flowing smoothly to states.

Push to raise gas tax

LaHood, on an Ohio visit that included Cincinnati on behalf of the Associated General Contractors of America, said Congress needs to show courage. He said the time to raise the federal gas tax for the first time in 22 years is now.

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. A ten cent hike would take that to 28 cents at a time when gas prices can fluctuate daily in greater amounts.

LaHood said the lack of political will costs the Dayton metro area and 127 other metro areas that lost construction jobs between June 2014 and June 2015, according to an analysis from the Associated General Contractors of America. Dayton is down about 300 such jobs, Cincinnati is down 1,200.

“If Congress misses the July 31 deadline to keep the nation’s Highway Trust Fund from going bankrupt, these job losses could get a lot worse. Thousands of transportation projects across America could lose funding and grind to a halt if the Trust Fund runs out of money,” LaHood, co-chair of infrastructure-spending advocacy group Building America’s Future, said. “In Ohio some $1.3 billion in federal funding and hundreds of construction jobs could be at risk.”

John Householder, vice president with Kokosing Construction and a member of the Associated General Contractors of America, said that out of the 358 metro areas the association tracks, Dayton ranked 243rd for construction job growth, the bottom third of the list.

Householder added that construction employment in Dayton has declined by 25 percent since peaking at 15,800 workers in June 2005.

LaHood admitted that the chances for a gas tax hike seem unlikely. “Right now, it’s zero,” he said. “Nobody wants to raise taxes.”

In Ohio, of 27,015 bridges, 2,242 or eight percent are structurally unsafe. In Montgomery County there were 49 bridges in that condition; in Clark 17; in Darke 7; in Greene 6; Miami 27; in Preble 54, according to analysis by the The American Road & Transportation Builders Association based on federal data.

In Dayton, the Third Street bridge is among the most prominent bridges that need to be replaced.

Montgomery County Engineer Paul Gruner said the funding needs are severe enough that both a federal and state gas tax hike are needed. “Nobody in Congress will talk about it,” he said.

Deadline looms

House Republican leaders say their approach would buy them time to try to come up with a tax reform deal coveted by the White House and some leaders in both parties, and use that to pay for an even longer-term highway bill. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said publicly and privately that such a deal will be all but impossible to achieve. He wants to move legislation now to dispense with the highway issue at least through next year’s elections, give certainty to states and avoid repeated fights over the issue.

“Time is running out to get this bill through Congress. We’re up against a deadline at the end of week,” McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor. “Jobs are on the line. Important infrastructure projects are too. So we have to get the job done.”

Despite the dispute between the two chambers there’s little expectation Congress would let the Friday deadline come and go without action, given from state and local transportation agencies, the construction industry and others. But how the issue will get resolved before then is unclear. One possibility is an even shorter-term extension of two months or so, which McCarthy was careful not to rule out.

Erica Werner and Joan Lowy of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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(c)2015 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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