Sen. John McCain touched off a spirited round of debate among the presidential candidates earlier this year by proposing a national gas tax holiday. In the process, he may have also provided a glimpse into the not-too-distant future. Shortly after the new president and Congress are sworn into office in 2009, they will face the task of reallocating the nation's $40 billion-a-year transportation spending program. The program is funded primarily through the federal portion of the fuel taxes that motorists and truckers pay at the pump. The money is collected in the Highway Trust Fund and sent to each state to help finance major projects. Unfortunately, the fund's revenues have lagged behind expenditures for much of the past decade, and the account now sits on the brink of insolvency. Consequently, Americans can expect vigorous debate over the gas tax—as well as tolls, privatization and other funding strategies—next year when lawmakers attempt to meet the nation's growing transportation needs with stagnant resources.
Since efficient highways, bridges and transit systems are vital to the American way of life in so many different ways, we posed five key questions about transportation to Sen. McCain and Sen. Barack Obama in separate telephone interviews. Here's what they have to say about the future of America's surface transportation network. (AAA does not endorse either candidate. Their responses appear in the order in which they responded.)
AAA: As you crisscross the nation on this campaign seeing different cities and learning about the different challenges that Americans face, what thoughts have you developed about the state of the nation's transportation system?
Sen. Obama: Well right now, gas prices are on everybody's minds. They are putting an enormous strain on family budgets. This is making it difficult for people to get to work. People have to choose between food and taking the family vacation. It is obviously having an enormous effect on our economy as a whole. What we need to do is provide some families with some short-term relief. I think the best mechanism is through a tax cut that goes into the pockets of working families to accommodate high gas prices that are affecting people right now.
Long term, we have to develop a whole new energy strategy in this country. This is why I opposed the proposal supported by John McCain to have a gas-tax holiday. At most it would have saved folks $28 for the entire summer. They would need more relief than that, and it would also empty out the money from the Highway Trust Fund, which we use to make our roads and bridges safe. It wouldn't solve our long-term energy problems. I think that drilling off the coast of the United States is also a problem. Every estimate indicates that it would have an effect on gas prices maybe 20 years from now, an entire generation from now. During that 20 years, we are much better off investing in new technologies for plug-in hybrids and creating new electricity grids so that people can plug in their cars. I think that is the wave of the future. Developing biofuels and alternative fuels can help reduce overall costs. Those are the strategies that I think we have to pursue.
Sen. McCain: I recognize that our nation faces a number of infrastructure challenges, and one need only look beyond the bridge collapse in Minnesota last year to realize that we need to make sure that we manage our infrastructure resources effectively and make sure we recognize our transportation priorities.
AAA: Looking specifically at the nation's transportation infrastructure, with the next highway authorization scheduled for renewal next year, what role do you think the federal government should play in addressing the deterioration and growing inefficiencies of our highways, bridges and transit systems?
Sen. Obama: I think the federal government should take the lead in the same way that it took the lead with the Transcontinental Railroad system, the same way it took the lead in building the Interstate Highway system. The federal government has to take the lead on large-scale infrastructure upgrades that the country so desperately needs.
What I have proposed is a $60 billion supplement [with] a more rational capital budget to invest in "smart growth," including incentives to reduce congestion.
Sen. McCain: I understand that current budget constraints demand more than ever that we focus our limited resources responsibly, and that includes the federal funds used to improve our national transportation system. But I want to assure you that under my presidency there will be no more "Bridges to Nowhere." [Editors note: The Bridge to Nowhere refers to the allocation of $223 million on a bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska to a nearby island populated by 50 people in the five-year federal transportation spending program approved in 2005.]
There will be a renewed attention to bridge safety, as well as the safety of the air and road traveling public. The next administration will face a number of important challenges. I believe we need to keep the air and road traveling public safe. And one of the best ways to do that, to start with, is to end wasteful spending and re-establish the federal government's proper role in the federal transportation system. I believe strongly that transportation funding decisions must be based on input from state and local officials who understand their unique transportation needs and priorities better than the politicians in Washington, D.C. I would like to be in a situation where state and local governments have much stronger input [on transportation funding].
AAA: When you talk about investing in the nation's transportation infrastructure, how would you fund this?
Sen. Obama: I will work to reform the federal transportation funding process, and also create a new national infrastructure reinvestment bank to invest $60 billion in additional direct federal funding over 10 years into our transportation infrastructure. The bank will use this $60 billion to leverage private and public capital to spur even more investments into our infrastructure. I will pay for this plan by using a small amount of the proceeds associated with winding down the war in Iraq.
Sen. McCain: I truly believe that the integrity of the nation's transportation system is compromised by the disgraceful amounts of pork-barrel spending that have saturated our highway authorization bills. It's disgraceful, and it breeds corruption. I've been a frequent and vocal critic of pork-barrel projects that bloat the budget and divert funding from the true mission of the highway system. I have fought for more equitable disposition of Highway Trust Fund dollars. I believe that a higher share of the taxes collected at the gas pump should go back to the state where those taxes were paid, and I've co-sponsored legislation that would allow states to keep almost all of their gas tax revenues for their own transportation projects without interference from Washington, D.C. By ending the practice of pork barrel spending and reforming the Highway Trust Fund's redistribution system, we can ensure that our national infrastructure priorities see the funding needed to modernize and maintain our transportation sector.
AAA: Is an increase in the fuel-tax rate on the table?
Sen. Obama: I do not support raising the federal gas tax.
Sen. McCain: Of course not. How can you ask Americans for more money, in the form of taxes, if you're spending $223 million for a bridge in Alaska to an island with 50 people on it? Pork-barrel spending is rampant, and Congress refuses to set any kind of cost-benefit [thresholds] or prioritization of these projects. The funding is not related to need or requirement, it's only related to the power and influence of an individual member of Congress. And that's disgraceful.
AAA: What would the guiding principles of your administration's transportation policy be and how high of a priority will this be, compared to the war in Iraq, the economy, health care reform and all the other issues our nation is facing?
Sen. Obama: Modernizing American infrastructure is a critical component of my long-term economic growth agenda. While China, India and other countries are making significant investments in upgrading their roads, bridges and ports, Washington, D.C., has not only provided too few resources to maintain our existing infrastructure, but also paid little attention to building new infrastructure to accommodate a growing population and the demands of a 21st-century economy. As your readers will likely know, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given our infrastructure a "D" grade and projects over a trillion-dollar unmet investment need for our infrastructure. That is simply unacceptable both for the safety of the American people and the continued growth of our economy. I will engage state and local leaders in my efforts to re-evaluate our federal transportation funding process. I will require governors and local leaders in our metropolitan areas to make energy conservation a required part of their planning for the expenditure of federal transportation funds—an effort that I hope will spur more focus on investing in efficient modes of transportation and efficient projects.
Sen. McCain: As you know, I believe the first duty of the president is to ensure national security, but I also believe, particularly in times of economic hardship, that ensuring the economic strength of America must be a prevailing priority for any administration. I believe that the state of our transportation sector is inextricably linked to the health of our economy. We must have a 21st-century transportation sector to underpin our modern economy. I'm committed to the modernization of all aspects—highway, rail, transit and beyond—of our transportation sector. I can assure you that in these times of high gas prices, more and more Americans need a more efficient transportation system to reduce their transportation costs.
This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.