Highway Trust Fund Is 'Broke,' Ex-Transportation Secretary LaHood Says
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's talk now about ground transportation. The government is running out of money for highways, bridges and mass transit. The money comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which is usually filled through a gas tax, a bit more than .18 cents per gallon, which you pay anytime you're at a filling station. The tax no longer brings in enough money for the current pace of construction. Lawmakers don't agree what to do, although they have until the end of the month to act. Ray LaHood argues that the answer simple - raises the gas tax. LaHood is a former Republican congressman and also President Obama's former transportation secretary.
RAY LAHOOD: The gas tax in America has not been raised for 20 years, so I don't know of anything that hadn't been raised in 20 years. And the reason that Congress can't pass a multi-year transportation bill is because they haven't been able to come to grips with the idea that they need to raise the gas tax.
INSKEEP: Is there something changing in America or the way people drive or the condition of the roads that also makes that gas tax insufficient?
LAHOOD: Two things - people are driving less and people are driving more fuel-efficient cars. And that's changed dramatically from the time that we began paving over America with our interstate system. So the idea that people are driving more hybrids, the idea that people - lots of people are using mass transit more than ever before means that the Highway Trust Fund is not getting the resources that it once did.
INSKEEP: Now with that said, the Highway Trust Fund is still receiving tens of billions of dollars in tax revenues. Why is that not enough?
LAHOOD: Because we haven't kept up with our infrastructure. Over 50 years we built the best interstate system in the world, but we haven't kept it up and it's crumbling. And we've had some very brutal winters all across the northern part of America. And so we have, really, thousands of bridges that are in a state of bad repair, and we have our interstate system that's turning to gravel because we haven't kept it up.
INSKEEP: What do your fellow Republicans tell you when you tell them that they should be voting for higher taxes?
LAHOOD: Well, they know that we should, but there's enough that don't want to. It's just been very difficult to get conservative Republicans to think about raising the gas tax.
INSKEEP: Now, with that said, isn't it also fair to say that if you're concerned about people who aren't making very much in America, you should be concerned about a gas tax increase - it's regressive. If you're affluent, you don't care about an extra couple cents a gallon. But if you're driving to work in a low-paying job, you really do.
LAHOOD: Well, the money doesn't stay in Washington. It doesn't go to any particular politicians. What happens to the money is it comes back to the states and it puts friends and neighbors to work, people who know how to build roads and bridges.
INSKEEP: President Obama has called for a lot more infrastructure spending, but has not proposed funding it in the way that you describe, with a higher gas. He's spoken instead of paying for infrastructure by taxing corporate profits earned overseas. How would you rate the president's advocacy on this issue?
LAHOOD: Well, the president hasn't been for raising the gas tax. I would agree with that. He's called for using what you call repatriated funds, funds that are offshore.
LAHOOD: The business community is not going to be for that. They want to use that money for R and D, research and development. They want to use it for their own purposes. You're not going to see the Chamber of Commerce or any business group stepping up advocating for the use of repatriated funds for infrastructure.
INSKEEP: Has the president been unhelpful then?
LAHOOD: Well, he's got his own ideas about this. Everybody in Washington has an idea about it. And I like the idea of raising the gas tax .10 cents a gallon. We need a strong six-year transportation program, well-funded. And if you raise the gas tax .10 cents a gallon and indexed it to the cost of living, you raise about a billion additional dollars a year. That would be very helpful.
INSKEEP: Secretary LaHood, thanks very much.
LAHOOD: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Ray LaHood is a former U.S. secretary of transportation and congressman from Illinois. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.