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Highway Funding Stalled By Partisan Politics

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Aired 4/19/09

A crucial federal highway funding bill is stuck in the gridlock of partisan politics. If the bill isn't passed soon, California could lose almost $1 billion in construction money. Matt Laslo reports from Washington.

The government gets about 18 cents for every gallon of gas you buy. That money goes into the Highway Trust Fund, which is then dispersed for projects across the US. But this year the fund is facing a 30% budget shortfall, partly because people are driving less, and partly because lawmakers raided it to fund other projects. San Diego Democrat Bob Filner says the fund is vital for California drivers.

Filner: "We have a crumbling infrastructure, and just like your house or your whatever possessions, you gotta keep maintenance on ‘em. And if you don't you're gonna lose em. So we gotta figure out as a nation to put it on a higher priority."


If the bill does not become law by October first, California will lose over $900 million in highway funds. That could result in the loss of over 30,000 construction jobs. The House has already voted to add $8 billion into the fund. The ball is now in the Senate's court. Jeffrey Solsby is with The American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

Solsby: "If this measure is approved in the senate those jobs and that funding will be protected. If it's not, those jobs and that funding will be at risk."

Senate Democrats attached the highway bill to an expansive job creation bill. Senate Republicans have defeated the measure twice this week. It isn't so much that the majority of Republicans oppose the jobs bill. They just want Democrats to let them vote on expanding domestic oil drilling.

Martinez: "We've gotta deal with energy first and until that happens I don't think we're gonna deal with anything else."

That's Florida Republican Mel Martinez. He has been helping the Republican caucus defeat the jobs bill, even though he supports it. The bill includes tax incentives for renewable energy companies. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer says the bill will bring down oil prices and create construction jobs.

Boxer: "States are already beginning to lay people off from projects that were ready to go. And you put that together with the people being laid off who were going to work in solar, geothermal, and wind energy, it's a really sad day."

This year's attempt at a quick fix for the highway trust has raised questions about the fund. Vista Republican Darrel Issa.

Issa: "We have to find a way to make the trust fund solvent on an on going basis. Fundamentally money is taken from the trust fund for things that probably shouldn't be."

Some lawmakers propose increasing the federal gas tax by 50 cents to pay for highway projects. The Bush administration wants to raise revenue with more tolls and taxing drivers on how many miles they drive. Filner has his own idea.

Filner: "I would just have a special excess profits fund coming right out of the oil companies to fund it."

That is unlikely to happen. Many lawmakers don't expect the budget problem to be addressed until the next Congress. Senator Dianne Feinstein expects changes to the system.

Feinstein: "This an increasing problem, and that is that budgets aren't realistic. President's budgets are cut way back, our allocation is very limited, we can't add very much. And it's a real problem."

Congress is running out of time. Lawmakers are gone for the month of August. They are back in September for only three weeks before they leave again to campaign. That gives them a small window to pass the highway legislation and a host of other bills. Supporters will be working hard to pass the bill. If they fail California drivers will face more delays and bigger potholes.

From Capitol News Connection in Washington, I'm Matt Laslo for KPBS News.

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