Herrera Beutler: Highway bill would ensure funding for CRC

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Recently our local media paid considerable attention to my effort in Congress to amend a bill and require a public vote in Clark County on light rail as part of the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing project. I still believe we deserve a vote and I will continue to stand up for the people of Clark County. However, I believe another recent story went under-reported: For the first time in more than six years, Congress is moving forward with a multiyear bill to fully fund maintenance and upgrades to our nation’s transportation system. With this solution, we’re doing it without increasing the federal gas tax.

Right now, the federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for transportation projects is in bad shape. It depends on the federal gas tax, which thanks to more fuel-efficient cars is bringing in less and less money and is no longer keeping up with our transportation needs. As a result, the fund is currently projected to run out of money in early 2013, about the same time CRC project sponsors hope to break ground. The bill I supported, the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act,” would replenish the Highway Trust Fund and allow the federal government to pay its share of projects like the Columbia River bridge replacement.

The bill would also empower states to make each transportation dollar go farther. How? By merging nearly 70 federal programs that do similar work, speeding up approval processes, enabling concurrent permitting and removing excessive federal requirements. For instance, right now the federal government requires that a certain percentage of transportation dollars go to things such as landscaping or transportation museums. I don’t oppose these things, but I believe states ought to be able to determine their top transportation priorities. Under this bill, they can.

Funding certainty

Instead of doling out money in dribs and drabs, each state would receive its share of federal money directly as a large grant. The bill would provide Washington state with a higher level of federal funding than it currently receives, to spend as it sees fit. Equally as important, this solution would provide funding certainty for priority infrastructure projects. Transportation planners won’t have to travel to Washington, D.C. to request earmarks, hoping that money won’t run out halfway through construction.

The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act makes sure Southwest Washington families and small businesses won’t have to pay a penny more in gas taxes. This bill would open up more domestic energy sources in the U.S., and dedicate the royalties to supplement the disappearing gas tax. Over the next 20 years, this source of revenue is only projected to grow.

I have said all along that I believe we need to replace the Interstate 5 Columbia River bridge, and that the federal government needs to pay its fair share of the cost. I believe Clark County deserves the opportunity to weigh in on light rail, but at the end of the day the U.S. government has an obligation to help fund improvements on the interstate highway system. I’m working to make sure the federal government is able to step up to the plate when the time comes to pay for the new bridge.

My colleagues and I moved the bill that meets our needs and protects our pocketbooks through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Feb. 3. It is scheduled for a vote of the full House of Representatives later this week. I hope we can advance this solution that will improve our nation’s infrastructure and allow our economy to keep moving, growing and creating new jobs.

Jaime Herrera Beutler represents the 3rd Congressional District in Southwest Washington.