WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration sent a four-year, $302 billion transportation plan to Congress on Tuesday, hoping to jump-start a national debate on how to repair and replace the nation's aging infrastructure while accommodating the needs of a growing population.
Action is urgently needed because the federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to run dry by late August, said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Unless Congress acts to shore up the fund, transportation aid to states will be held up and workers laid off at construction sites across the country, he said.
Lawmakers in both parties have been reluctant to raise the 18.4 cent a gallon federal gasoline and 24.4 cent diesel taxes, the trust fund's main source of revenue. The last time they were raised was 1993. Meanwhile, two decades of inflation has driven up the cost of construction, while revenue has lagged because Americans are driving less and cars are more fuel efficient.
The administration's plan includes pumping about $150 billion into transportation programs beyond the money raised from fuel taxes. The extra spending would be paid for by changes to business taxes, including a proposal to close corporate loopholes, such as ones that encourage U.S. companies to invest overseas.
"The only way we're going to fix this is if everyone puts their ideas on the table and has an honest discussion on how to find common ground," Foxx told reporters.
The bill would also encourage states to directly raise more money for transportation projects by loosening restrictions on tolling federal interstates. States are barred from tolling federal interstates now except if the money is used to add lanes or otherwise increase capacity, or if the highways have had tolls dating back to before the federal interstate highway program was launched in 1956. There have also been some limited pilot projects that permit tolling.
The administration plan would let states toll interstates to pay for repair or replacement of the highways. Many interstates, built to last 50 years, are past their life expectancy and in need of more substantial repairs than simple repaving. States would also be allowed to introduce "variable tolling, tolls that change according to the time of day or traffic conditions. The tolls are designed to encourage more drivers to carpool or use public transit in an effort to relieve congestion.
The plan would also raise the amount the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can fine an automaker for safety violations from the current $35 million to $300 million. The administration has made the proposal previously, but that was before General Motors became embroiled in a scandal over delayed recalls of 2 million cars with faulty ignition switches that are alleged to have led to at least 13 deaths.