Anthony Foxx's Impossible Task

He's trying to persuade the unpersuadable
U.S. Department of Transportation

In this month’s issue of the magazine, Washingtonian magazine’s Luke Mullins writes about Anthony Foxx’s main challenge as Transportation Secretary: convincing Congress to adopt tax code reform that would fund $300 billion in needed improvements to roads and bridges, among other things. There’s no disputing the need, Luke writes; a third of the nation’s roads are in poor to mediocre condition, and 11 percent of its bridges are structurally deficient.

The problem is that he’s up against a group of people who want the federal government out of the transportation business. It’s a purely ideological stance that glosses over the existence of crumbling roads and bridges, and the construction jobs just waiting to be created to do the work, but this is what Charlotte’s own Anthony Foxx has to contend with these days: members of Congress willing to drive their cars into ditches to demonstrate the dangers of highways.

Here’s the issue: The government pays for highway maintenance through the Highway Trust Fund, created in 1956 and funded by an 18.4-cents-per-gallon fuel tax. That amount has not changed in 21 years, and the combination of inflation, more fuel-efficient cars, and decaying highways and bridges means the fund is running out. From Business Insider:

In a letter to state transportation officials sent Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said funding for transportation projects would begin to be affected Aug. 1 if Congress does not take action. Foxx also warned states should expect about a 28% cut in federal funding for construction projects …

Thus far, Congress has failed to agree on a solution, and the federal government has begun amping up its warnings to states. The Obama administration has estimated as many as 700,000 jobs could be lost and about 112,000 active construction projects could be affected by either being delayed, deferred, or halted. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), who has been the Democratic leadership's point person on the issue, has warned of the potentially disastrous “construction shutdown.”

President Barack Obama, sounding rather exasperated on Tuesday, pushed the four-year, $302 billion plan his administration has advocated as a solution to the problem — which has no chance of passing through Congress.

“It’s not crazy, it’s not socialism,” he said in remarks in front of the Georgetown waterfront with the Key Bridge in the background. “It’s not the imperial presidency — no laws are broken. We’re just building roads and bridges like we’ve been doing for the last, I don’t know, 50, 100 years.”

I’ve hunted long and hard for some rational explanation of why Congress would oppose a bill to pay for road improvements. Bad roads hurt the economy. Collapsing bridges hurt and kill people (and hurt the economy). Construction jobs help the economy. For heaven’s sake, why?

Here’s why (from Roll Call):

For conservatives, that will be the time to make another attempt to ease the federal government out of transportation decisions and give states more authority to spend federal money without following Washington’s guidelines and formulas so closely. That’s the case they already are making in proposals from the right addressing the impending shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund and the move toward the broader highway bill.

“You’re seeing the groundwork being laid now for what will become a real conversation about the future of the federal role in surface transportation,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Our point is the people up here aren’t the best ones to make decisions. Let’s cut out the middle man and move this back to the states where it belongs.”

This approach has two glaring problems. The first: This is not 1855. The United States has a federal transportation system for a reason. Cars and trucks cross state lines, and states aren’t exactly overflowing with money for basic services, much less interstate construction.

The second: While conservative ideologues steer the Department of Transportation toward a cliff to force the “real conversation,” the roads and bridges will continue to get worse, and construction companies will lose jobs because they can’t count on funding for the long-term road improvement projects a solvent HTF would pay for.

(And that’s assuming there’s something approaching “thought” going on there; I’m sure a significant factor in the opposition is the fact that Foxx, and by extension Obama, wants it.)

Anyway, there’s the brick wall Charlotte’s Anthony Foxx, West Charlotte Class of ‘89, is currently beating his head against. Like so much in national policy since January 2009, it’d be amusing if it didn’t have such serious, and potentially fatal, consequences.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest