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House approves $325 billion transportation bill, but where will funding come from?

November 7, 2015 at 6:30 PM EST
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday voted to pass a multi-year transportation bill that would authorize federal spending of up to $325 billion on road, bridge and rail transit projects for six years, though final provisions are subject to negotiations with the Senate. USA Today's Bart Jansen joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Federal funding for the nation’s roads, bridges and mass transit is one step closer after the House of Representatives passed a $325 billion transportation bill this week.

That sounds like a lot of money, but the Obama administration requested $478 billion to fix the nation’s infrastructure.

The bill, which now goes back to the Senate, approved six years of projects but funding for only three years.

One of the underlying issues is that Congress won’t raise the gas tax that funds transportation projects. It’s been stuck at 18 cents a gallon since 1993.

Joining me now from Washington to discuss all this is Bart Jansen, the transportation reporter for USA Today.

So, Bart, it’s kind of classic math that only seems to work in Congress where you can approve maybe a project for six years and only fund it for three.

BART JANSEN, USA TODAY: Well, it is an accomplishment that they’ve got a six-year bill that they hope to reconcile and get completed, get sent to the president’s desk by Thanksgiving.

The last time we had a six-year bill was 1998. The four-year bill that expired in 2009, there have been 35 short-term extensions since then.

So, everybody’s pleased to get a six-year set of policies so that state and local officials can plan road building, bridge building better.

But now, the hard part comes — how do you find the funding to support $325 or $342 billion worth of construction goals.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Where have they found the funding so far? What sort of nips and cuts of what has been cost to try to make this possible?

BART JANSEN: So far, there are three major pots of money to add to the amount they raise from the gas tax.

They would take 17 — the Senate version would take $17 billion from dividends that the Federal Reserve pays to banks for investing in the Federal Reserve.

There’s also $9 billion from a sell-off of a portion of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And there’s $9 billion in basically travel fees paid to Customs and to the Transportation Security Administration.

Those amounts are combining to basically bolster the gas tax.

The problem is that the federal government spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 billion on these highway projects, but only collects about $34 billion in the gas tax.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the infrastructure needs right now? Why is this spending even necessary?

BART JANSEN: Well, one of the reasons lawmakers are joined in agreeing that spending needs to go up is because everybody can see potholes in the road or troubles with their subways.

One of the most prominent examples was in 2007, the Interstate 35 Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people.

In Washington here, our subway system has routine fires and a woman died from the smoke of a fire in January in one of the subway tunnels.

So, it’s a problem that lawmakers are aware of in both parties.

And so, the Federal Highway Administration has said as they debate whether to spend about $50 billion a year, the Federal Highway Administration says it would take $65 billion to $83 billion a year just to maintain current standards.

The Federal Transit Administration says that there is a $76 billion backlog in construction projects for transit projects nationwide.

And the highway folks at the state level, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials, estimate there is a $700 billion backlog in highway projects to meet capacity, congestion, and also bridges.

So, the size of the problem is agreed upon. The problem is how to pay to fix those problems.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Bart Jansen from USA Today, joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

BART JANSEN: Thank you.

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