The problems all started with Newt Gingrich. For decades, federal transportation funding had been a bastion of bipartisanship: The gasoline tax served as a user fee for our roads, 20 percent of the revenue went to mass transit and the rest to highways, and everyone kept the system running so their districts could get what they needed. Then, in 1994, Gingrich led the right-wing Republican insurgency that took over the House of Representatives. They did not want to raise the gas tax, even to keep pace with inflation. They actually tried to repeal the previous gas-tax increase, from 1993. Hatred of the gas tax, like hatred of all taxes, soon calcified into Republican orthodoxy. Rather than increase the gas tax, President George W. Bush presided over a growing gap between our transportation needs and the revenue the tax generated.
And the problem has not been fixed under Obama. With Republicans currently controlling the House, Congress cannot pass a reauthorization of the surface transportation law that would address our nation’s growing transportation investment needs. Instead, they have retained the status quo through a series of short-term extensions and then, in 2012, a two-year authorization (normally the law is extended for six years) that maintained current funding levels by using general revenues to patch a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, which is supposed to be fully supported by the gas tax. That authorization expires this year, so some kind of transportation deal will have to be worked out in the coming months.
On Wednesday, Obama went ahead and laid out a progressive vision for a four-year transportation bill, despite the fact that Republicans will never go for it. It would boost transportation spending to a total of $302 billion over four years and reorient that spending in smart ways.