With a major infrastructure spending bill hanging in the balance, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Monday compared Congress to shopping with his grandmother when she would tell him to put the toy back on the shelf because they were just browsing.
“Well, I learned later what ‘browsing’ meant. Browsing meant we have no intention of coming back to get that toy,” he said. “That’s what Congress is doing. Every time they do another [short-term] patch, they’re just driving another nail into the idea that America’s going to solve our long-term transportation problems.”
Last week, the Republican-controlled House passed a highway and transportation spending bill providing a temporary financial cushion of $10.9 billion to save the Highway Trust Fund from falling into bankruptcy in August. The fund pays for transit projects throughout the nation, but the Obama administration has pushed Congress for a longer — and more expensive — fix.
The secretary, the former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, said Monday he has been ringing the alarm bell for months only to receive a “10-month patch on the system.” The Senate is expected to vote on its version of the bill this week.
“If this short-term patch passes, it will not be time to celebrate,” said Mr. Foxx.
His remarks at the National Press Club in Washington come at a time when transportation has become a growing source of concern for the Obama administration. The recently announced Build America Investment Initiative seeks to increase infrastructure spending, and the administration has pressed for a long-term fix for the highway fund.
While the proposed, temporary fix for the Highway Trust Fund is underway, lawmakers have balked at the administration’s blueprint for a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill, paid for in part by closing corporate tax loopholes to raise an estimated $150 billion.
“We get into the 11th hour [and] Congress shuffles around, tries to find an answer,” said Mr. Foxx. “We patch ourselves together for a few months. Everything was supposed to be OK, but it’s not.”
The almost-$11 billion hike to the highway fund will be raised through technical changes in pension law, customs fees and other sources. With the funds lasting until May 2015, the interim fix has bipartisan support, but long-term solutions have sparked partisan angst.
“The idea that Congress can’t pass a multiyear, forward-thinking transportation bill is one of the biggest self-fulfilling prophecies in American politics today,” said Mr. Foxx.
With Congress unwilling to make any long-term restructuring to the fund at this point, Mr. Foxx sought to rally public pressure to highlight what he called the “chronic underinvestment” into the nation’s transportation networks.
“Right now, Washington is dictating outcomes to the American people, but in our democracy it should work the other way,” he said. “So we’re going to let the American people decide whether their futures are worth fighting for.”
Transportation constitutes the second-biggest expense for the average American family, according to a report by the White House. The average expenditure for a family totals $9,000 a year.
“Clearly, we need a moment of clarity and political courage, and that will not happen without the American people raising their voices,” he said.
Mr. Foxx advocated for President Obama’s plan to restructure the funding for the Highway Trust Fund, saying it both stabilizes and increases the fund without increasing deficits.
The bill “ought to be like a layup,” he said. “It ought to be easy, but when you talk to members, essentially, the argument against it is ‘we can’t do it because we can’t.’”
But the administration’s proposed spending mechanism has gotten little traction on Capitol Hill. A suggested alternative is to increase the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993 and is considered highly politically problematic.
But raising the gas tax has its own challenges, said Mr. Foxx, in part because Americans are driving less and using less fuel than in the past.
“No matter where you set the level, the curve of the gas tax is actually downward-facing” as cars and trucks become more fuel-efficient, he said.