Talk of compromise on federal highway bill bodes well for potential sales tax projects

By David Pendered

The proposal to build roads and transit in metro Atlanta with a 1 percent sales tax got a boost Wednesday from four unlikely parties.

The four – President Obama, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, and chairman of the House Transportation Committee – indicated that each wants Congress and the White House to reach a deal over the continuation of the federal highway bill. It expires Sept. 30.

Metro Atlanta desperately needs some of that federal road and transit money. It’s programmed into some projects that will be promised if voters in 2012 approve a proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation. The sales tax referendum now is scheduled for the July ballot.

The federal highway bill has been at an impasse since early this summer, before Congress resolved the debt crisis. Congress returns to Washington next week.

U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fl), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had maintained that he would accept only a long-term bill that cut highway spending by about 30 percent, compared to current levels. Mica said the amount would equal the revenues to be raised by the federal motor fuel tax.

In an apparent reversal of that position, Mica released a statement on Wednesday saying he could support a short-term, one-time extension of the current highway program. Mica’s statement did not indicate the amount of money he would consider, according to an AP report.

If the current law expires, the federal government no longer collect the federal gas tax, of 18.4 cents a gallon, or the diesel tax, of 24.4 cents a gallon. The two fuel taxes pay for much of the highway bill, according to an AP report.

President Obama (center), with U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO David Chavern (left) and AFL-CIO  President Richard Trumka in the Rose Garden, where the president called for an extension of the highway and aviation bills. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

President Obama (center), with U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO David Chavern (left) and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in the Rose Garden, where the president called for an extension of the highway and aviation bills. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

The president spoke Wednesday in the Rose Garden, and was flanked by both AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce COO David Chavern. The labor union and chamber often spar on various issues, but each supports continued road construction.

In calling on Congress to pass a highway bill, the president said 4,000 workers would be furloughed immediately when the existing law expires, on Sept. 30. Obama said that potentially a million jobs could be lost over the next year, according to a report by the Associated Press.

“That’s just not acceptable,” Obama said. “It’s inexcusable.”

The U.S. chamber’s president and CEO, Thomas Donohue, also spoke in favor of the highway bill at an event separate from the White House. Donohue addressed reporters at the chamber’s annual Labor Day briefing.

Donohue cited six “buckets” of the economy that he said are essential to creating jobs. The third item he mentioned was road construction. In a speech covered by C-SPAN, Donohue said:

“What do we need? It’s simple – we need a highway bill. And we can’t cut the size of it.

“We need an FAA bill (Federal Aviation Administration) and a water bill.

“An estimated $250 billion is sitting around in global private investment firms that would like to invest in our infrastructure, because they have a sure way of being paid. We’re very anxious we move forward on this in a big way ….

“We can unlock all of this capital. We can create 1.5 million to 2 million jobs over the next period of time.”

Donohue said he will be in Dallas Thursday to continue voicing his support for the highway bill at a meeting of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

The event, at Southern Methodist University, is to “focus on the importance of infrastructure investment to creating jobs across sectors of the American economy,” according to the White House webpage.

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is slated to attend the event, along with other senior administration officials.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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