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Stepping in it
Reports covering the appearance of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood before the Senate Environment and Infrastructure Committee in March conjured up the image of a joke that was a hit on the playgrounds of my youth.
In the joke, three intellectually challenged individuals approach a suspicious looking mass on the sidewalk. Cautiously, they touch, taste and smell it before finally determining that it is animal waste, and express relief that they did not step in it.
In the Senate hearing we had a gathering of very intelligent people circling and sniffing a suspicious object that, in political society at least, looked and smelled dangerous.
The conversation was about America’s desperately neglected road and bridge infrastructure, and the disgusting lump around which our august leaders paced and fretted was the “T” word. Everyone in the room knew that we cannot modernize our roads without raising the fuel tax, but to advocate such a thing, especially in these economic times, would be to “step in it” politically.
Secretary LaHood, in particular, kept the Obama Administration as far away from the T word as anyone could get, repeating the mantra that the Administration won’t consider raising the fuel tax, though he subtly added the qualifier, ”at this time.”
Equally subtle was the way senators questioned LaHood, pointedly doubting that roads and bridges can be revitalized without a fuel tax increase, yet not advocating a fuel tax increase themselves.
The sharpest questioning of LaHood came from the committee’s ranking Republican, Senator George Voinovich (R-OH). After pointing out the country’s awful infrastructure problem, Voinovich is quoted by the AASHTO Journal as saying, “Let’s get serious. Where are you going to get the money?”
Voinovich has gone on record espousing a much larger federal highway program than the limp wristed program indicated in the Obama Administration’s proposed budget for 2010, but he has not disclosed how the additional funding would be raised.
He was not the only committee member to take this posture. Senators from both sides of the aisle questioned the Administration’s position that the next transportation bill can fix the nation’s roads and bridges without raising the fuel tax. However, like Voinovich, none of them openly advocated a fuel tax increase.
It would be a mistake to read too much into this hearing in terms of the forthcoming debate over the next federal highway program. All it really proves is that everyone knows we need a bigger plan with a major fuel tax increase, and no one wants to be the first to advocate the tax increase.
This should surprise no one. More importantly, it should not deter road advocates from promoting the kind of road program we need, both in the capitol and at the grass roots level.