Congressional passage of a short-term patch for the Highway Trust Fund will avert the immediate crisis but not be cause for celebration, said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Foxx and other transportation leaders are calling on Congress to preserve long-term funding for surface infrastructure.
In remarks Monday at the National Press Club, Foxx said he and 11 former Secretaries of Transportation are sending a letter to Congress urging action.
“America needs more than an incremental adjustment,” he said, referencing a House bill that would provide $10.6 billion to keep the Fund solvent until next May. “We need a transportation reset and it’s gotta be big.”
He said the $10.6 billion would last until May but does not address a key problem in the nation’s current approach to paying for its highways.
“The system depends on certainty, and the patch will not help,” he said.
He referenced concerns among state governors, transportation officials and the business community about the risk of a funding cut-off if Congress does not pass a patch, and the ongoing risk to the national transportation system from a political process that fails to provide for long-term reinvestment.
“It’s hard to imagine that Congress will not push the snooze button on this issue again,” he said. “Come May 2015 if we’re not careful we’ll be right here again, looking for an easy solution to patch us for a few more months.”
He added: “We cannot allow our politics to screw up a system that was given to us in good faith by previous generations.”
He said that in the current situation, underinvestment in highways seems normal, and each short-term patch “drives another nail into the idea that the U.S. is going to solve its transportation problems.”
“Washington is starting to make the most practical answers to these questions seem impractical and the most impractical answers seem practical,” he said.
The Obama administration’s solution is a bill that would use funds from corporate tax reform to pay for a four-year highway program.
On the option of raising fuel taxes to fund highways, which a number of legislators have proposed and which the trucking industry supports, the administration is essentially silent.
Foxx deflected a question on the fuel tax by referencing the administration’s tax reform idea and adding that he’s open to other ideas. In the past, the administration has opposed a fuel tax hike because it would be too heavy a burden on motorists struggling to cope with the recent recession.
Foxx did say that the in the long run fuel taxes will not be an adequate source of funding, because vehicles are getting more fuel efficient. A vehicle mile tax is a possibility but not any time soon, he said.
“We need a different source of revenue. It’s a conversation that needs to be had,” he said. “There are ideas out there but they are not ready for prime time.”
You can watch Foxx's entire speech online or you can read a transcript of his speech on the National Press Club website.