Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: email@example.com
Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta today called on Congress to make a substantial investment in the country's infrastructure, arguing the economy will suffer if federal lawmakers fail to act.
Mineta's pitch was a familiar one for transportation experts and advocates. The country is only as strong as its infrastructure, Mineta argued, and if the country's ability to move people and goods suffers, so too will its economy.
Mineta, now the vice chairman at communications firm Hill & Knowlton, spoke Wednesday morning at a workshop held by the Eno Transportation Foundation, a non-partisan D.C. think tank that studies transportation issues and provides leadership training for public officials in the field.
"Every day that we delay ... is just another day our economy suffers, our transportation system suffers, our drivers suffer," said Mineta, who lead the Department of Transportation from 2001 to 2006.
Mineta's comments come as Congress continues to hammer out the details of a long-term bill that authorizes federal spending on highway and transit projects. Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced a two-year, $109 billion bill. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is working on a six-year version of the legislation.
A temporary extension to the surface transportation program passed earlier this year expires March 31, 2012.
But both chambers are struggling to figure out how to pay for the legislation. The Highway Trust Fund -- which pays for the surface transportation programs -- is being rapidly depleted, in part due to the declining purchasing power of the gas tax, which hasn't been increased since 1993. Yet the Obama administration and federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle oppose increasing the gas tax, which would help fund those transportation programs. Instead, they're struggling to find other sources of money from federal coffers just to ensure highway and transit funding remains level.
Mineta recalled his own unsuccessful efforts at pitching a 2-cent annual increase of the gas tax during his time leading the Department of Transportation. He recalls president George W. Bush himself shooting down the proposal.
Since gas-tax increases are a non-starter, Mineta instead touted other user fees, such as tolling, as a way to help plug the funding. It's unclear whether the federal legislation will ultimately allow states to toll existing highway capacity, but historically, the feds have not been open to that idea.