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Transportation battle on the congressional horizon

When Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day, lawmakers will take up funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency is running on temporary funding while Democrats and Republicans slug it out over side issues.

The FAA fight isn’t the only transportation battle ahead.

Twice every decade, Congress passes a transportation bill. In the past, it’s been popular on both sides of the aisle, providing visible examples to voters of how Washington can fix roads and bridges in local districts. But now transportation has become part of the larger debate over government spending.

Last month, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica of Florida unveiled his slimmed-down six-year transportation bill. "We can only authorize programs within the limits of the trust fund," Mica says. "That’s what we have to deal with."

The trust fund is the Highway Trust Fund, fueled by an 18 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax. Mica says there’s only $35 billion a year in the trust fund. That means transportation spending will be cut by about a third.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of San Jose is one of 33 House Democrats from California who signed a letter to Chairman Mica asking him to reconsider cuts in transportation funding. "Now isn’t the time to pull back from investments that make the country work," Lofgren says. "It’ll make us more productive. It’ll make us more prosperous."

Lofgren says California would lose more than $1.25 billion dollars in highway investments and more than 60,000 jobs. "Yeah, we have budget challenges. There’s no question about that. And they have to be dealt with. But we also have the most important country in the world, with the strongest economy in the world, and we can’t just cut the legs out from under the economy by eliminating the public investment side."

The U.S. Senate is considering a very different transportation bill that maintains current spending levels – just over $100 billion over the next two years. Mica says there’s not enough money. "The trust fund is headed for bankruptcy at the end of those two years. So we would destroy the Highway Trust Fund concept."

Democrat Barbara Boxer heads the Environment and Public Works Committee. "The great news is I have Republican support for my bill," Boxer says. She points to rare bipartisan support, bragging that even the man she fights with about climate change, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, backs her bill.

"So it’s not me versus Mica," Boxer says. "It’s me and Inhofe and the Republicans on the committee and the Democrats on the committee versus the House that wants to cut transportation by a third, and that alone would cut construction jobs by 600,000."

But the question remains: how to pay for it? The gasoline tax hasn’t been raised in 18 years, but you’d be hard pressed to find a Washington politician willing to raise it now.

"Raising the gas tax when the economy is terrible, is just a tough thing to do," Congresswoman Lofgren says. "I mean, families are hurting, we’ve got 14 million people unemployed in America. It’s not the time to raise taxes for people in their cars looking for work."

China spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure projects; India spends 5 percent. The U.S.? About 2.4 percent of our GDP goes to infrastructure. And as a congressional supercommittee looks for ways to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit, that number is likely to continue to shrink.