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U.S. Highways 'A Disaster' In Need Of Gas Tax Increase, Ray LaHood Says

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WASHINGTON -- Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood intensified his criticism of Congress on Tuesday, saying the country's transportation system would suffer if lawmakers don't raise the gas tax this year.

"This is a big mess. We're not creating any jobs. We're not creating any opportunities. America is falling apart," LaHood said at a forum hosted by Bloomberg Government, a division of Bloomberg News. "The country is in a disaster when it comes to infrastructure. ... Bridges are falling down, roads are crumbling. We need a big, bold vision in Washington."

LaHood, President Barack Obama's transportation chief during his first term, has been sounding the alarm about the country's aging infrastructure in increasingly dire terms since he left the Department of Transportation last summer. Last month, he teamed up with the Washington-based nonprofit Building America's Future and called on the Obama administration to support raising the gas tax. The White House declined to take his advice.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), Building America's Future's co-chairman, was with LaHood on Tuesday and said lawmakers were behaving like "wusses" for not raising the gas tax and for not approving new funding sources for transportation projects in recent years. Rendell warned "we're going to hell in a handbasket" if transportation priorities are not funded soon.

LaHood and Rendell said raising the federal gas tax by about 10 cents a gallon would ensure the Highway Trust Fund remains solvent in the coming years. The Congressional Budget Office has projected the Highway Trust Fund is on a path to insolvency by fiscal 2015. The fund is significant because it is the main source of federal aid to states for road programs and mass transit agencies. But since many people now drive fuel-efficient cars, revenue from the tax on each gallon of fuel no longer covers the fund's obligations. The gas tax was last increased in 1993.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a member of the House Budget Committee, introduced legislation in December that would boost the tax of 18.3 cents per gallon to 33.3 cents a gallon by 2016, then index the tax to inflation.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as labor unions and the freight delivery sector, support a hike in the gas tax. Nevertheless, there is stern opposition from congressional Republicans.

Reflecting the tough politics confronting the proposal, the Republican speaker at the Bloomberg event on Tuesday said he opposed LaHood's position. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he would not consider raising the gas tax because of the financial pain it would inflict on consumers.

"Our economy is not in good shape," Shuster said, adding, "We got to figure out different ways."

Shuster said he would explore funding alternatives to the gas tax when his committee takes up a new highway bill to replace the 2012 transportation law that expires in September. LaHood, Rendell and other transportation observers said they expect Congress to approve a short-term extension of the transportation law to avoid making unpopular decisions on transportation funding before this year's elections.

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