Former Reagan Transportation Secretary and Venable partner Jim Burnley was quoted in a May 2, 2009 National Journal article on how to pay for improvements to the nation's federal interstate highway and urban public transportation systems.
According to the article, experts already estimate the highway and other major infrastructure funding needs to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The independent National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission estimated earlier this year that the gap between federal revenues alone and the amount of money needed to improve the system at $400 billion from 2010 through 2015, and $2.3 trillion through 2035.
To make up for this funding shortfall, transportation advocacy groups are calling for an increase in fuel taxes. However, unless Obama makes a strong push, Burnley does not believe that lawmakers will vote to make their constituents pay more to fill up their cars and trucks. "Unless the Democratic president is leading a Democratic Congress to that kind of outcome, I can't imagine it happening," said Burnley.
So what happens to the Highway Trust Fund absent a gas-tax increase? "We limp along, underfunding infrastructure as we go. Then the other option is ever-greater transfers of general revenues to prop it up at current levels--and the whole concept of a dedicated revenue stream for transportation infrastructure will be destroyed, because every time we do that it has a corrosive effect" on the user-pays principle that underlies the trust fund, said Burnley.