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LaHood calls for increased federal gas tax

Former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Raymond H. LaHood told a Baltimore transportation summit Thursday that Congress’ failure to provide sustained funding for an ever-growing backlog of national transportation projects is the failure of partisan politics and tea party Republicans.

LaHood, speaking to a gathering of state and local officials and area transportations experts, called for an increase in the federal gas tax. He said the country is in the midst of a growing transportation infrastructure crisis that will continue unabated until voters elect representatives willing to compromise on funding options.

“I’m going to be pretty blunt here about things that you know about,” said LaHood, speaking at an event organized by the Greater Baltimore Committee. The Daily Record was a sponsor of the event.

“I’m afraid to say, to state the obvious, that Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Congress and their ability to solve American’s problems is broken,” LaHood said. It’s broken because of partisan politics. It’s broken because you have people elected to very important jobs … there are a number of people elected to Washington to do nothing, vote no on everything and stand in the way of progress.

LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, served as transportation secretary under President Barack Obama.

“Our transportation system is broken,” he said. “There’s no way to fund it. America is one big pothole because of the winter we had last winter. No one is addressing the issue. Congress kicked the can down the road by extending the transportation bill and the way to fund it through next May with no real solutions in sight. It will be up to the American people to say ‘enough is enough.’ We need to fix up our roads. We need to build bridges and replace bridges. We need to take care of 100-year-old transit systems. This is the only way that America, and cities in American, will make progress and will create jobs and put friends and neighbors to work.”

LaHood told the audience that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives needs to come together and compromise on a plan to increase the federal gas tax. The tax, currently 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t been raised in two decades.

“It should be raised It’s the big pot of money that built America,” LaHood said. “Tolls are great but it’s not enough. Public-private partnerships are great but it’s not enough. Vehicle miles traveled tax is great but it’s not enough.”

In Maryland, the legislature voted a year ago to phase in a 20-cent increase on the state gas tax — the first such increase in 20 years. Much of the more than $4 billion expected over the first six years will be used to fund construction of the Purple and Red rail transportation projects. The state hopes to build the $2.3 billion Purple Line from Montgomery to Prince George’s County through the use of a public-private partnership in which a group of companies will finance, build and manage the project in return for guaranteed payments over a 30-40 year period.

State officials are hoping to use a similar funding mechanism for smaller portions of the $2.9 billion Red Line. Much of the expense for the project will involve digging a mile-long tunnel under Baltimore as the line travels west to Baltimore County. That cost would be paid entirely by the state.

Emily Goff, a transportation policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation, a Republican Party-aligned think tank, said everyone agrees that improving transportation infrastructure is a top priority because of its effect on the national economy.

“The federal government’s role, I would say any government’s role when it comes to transportation policy, should be to facilitate an efficient system. One that is oriented around adding capacity where demand exists. Reducing traffic congestion. Improving infrastructure and of course, improving mobility and safety for the people using it.”

Goff said federal transportation programs are riddled with problems. Among those are ever-expanding transportation programs, some of which were created over 60 years ago, that were expanded rather than discontinued. Goff said as much as one-third of annual spending from the federal transportation trust fund goes to non-transportation programs such as hiking and biking trails and transportation museums.

Goff said the problems in the current system can’t be fixed by “hiking taxes.”

“It’s like beginning a new exercise regimen but still eating unhealthful foods and having an unbalanced diet,” she said.

Instead, Goff said, the federal government should stop funding projects that are strictly local and only pay for interstate roads and bridge projects, examine who is paying taxes and prioritize those projects. Goff said motorists are being shortchanged when it comes to transportation spending. Goff also called for an easing of federal regulations that lead to years of delays for environmental programs and impede state governments and the private sector from starting and completing transportation projects.

Goff said at least 28 states have recently increased gas taxes, imposed vehicle miles traveled taxes, public-private partnerships or other forms of revenue-generating options as a way to pay for local projects.

“I’m encouraged by that,” she said.