My colleague Fawn Johnson sat down with former House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar and WaPo columnist George Will to discuss how the transportation industry can convince a spendthrift Congress to open the checkbook for infrastructure spending.
Construction management company HNTB Corp. spent $280,000 last year on lobbying. The construction services industry spent $10.2 million. The entire transportation industry spent $237 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.But all that money is for naught if private-sector transportation executives cannot convince lawmakers to invest in highways, bridges, railways and runways. HNTB is concerned enough about the spending phobia in Congress to seek out advice from two longtime Washington insiders, former House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., and Washington Post columnist George Will. Oberstar is so well versed in infrastructure issues that he could dictate a book over lunch. Will, with his thumb on Washington's conservative zeitgeist, brings an outsider's perspective to transportation policy.Will and Oberstar spoke to HNTB corporate executives on Tuesday in Tucson, Ariz. National Journal had an exclusive interview with them and HNTB President Paul Yarossi to discuss how to convince Congress, and the public, to pay for transportation projects. Here are the highlights:Oberstar: The general public does not fully understand where their tax dollar goes when they're driving on a highway, when they're driving over a bridge, they're waiting in traffic, or their airplane is delayed. ...There was a very long period of time that there was a consensus that this was a good use of public revenues. The users of this system were paying for its construction operation and maintenance. But the last time the Highway Trust Fund revenue source was increased was in the 1983 Budget Reconciliation Act.Will: The more you stretch out the time that elapses from when the money is authorized and the good is delivered, the more attenuated the enthusiasm is going to be.Yarossi: The easy solution in the interim is to increase the gas tax, so we have a mechanism in place to collect it and we have a mechanism in place to distribute it. And the way I think you can get that done is that you have some reform in government where you can assure that that money is going directly to pavement and bridges.NJ: The gas tax is, for whatever reason, a political problem. I don't know how you get around that.GW: That is the understatement of the century.JO: Being fair to [President] Obama, they said in the campaign, "We'll not raise your taxes." And his minions told me that an increase in the [gas tax] user fees was that, and he couldn't support it.NJ: How do we make it OK to invest in infrastructure? How do we make it not seem like a tax?JO: You have to take this issue up yourselves, all of you in the business community, you who are shippers and you who are receivers. Your goods are arriving more slowly. It's costing you more in transaction costs. And you have to convince the public that we need a greater investment in improving your surface transportation than we have now. And if you don't do it, then no one else can credibly speak up for it. Members of Congress will be perceived as just trying to do something for their districts.GW: Something has to be done for people to begin to think they can trust the government with their money. The reason Solyndra is going to reverberate for a very long period of time is that is now emblematic of crony capitalism and for government incompetence with people's money. And they say, "If the government is not going to spend it, let's not to do it."NJ: Is there any way that the gas tax could be increased in the next year or two?JO: Not this year. After the election, yes.GW: Post election, no chance. In 1950, my father in Champagne, Illinois paid 29.9 cents a gallon for gasoline, which is probably about what I'm paying today in inflation-adjusted terms. The idea that gasoline is hugely expensive today is preposterous. But it doesn't matter. People now feel entitled to cheap gasoline. And they understand cheap gasoline is less than its costing now. Don't try and argue with them.JO: Last week in France it was $7.50 a gallon.