The Country's Infrastructure Problems Are Clear. The Solutions Aren't.

At a National Journal event, stakeholders say the funding path for transportation projects remains murky.

Commute times are staggering. Potholes are widening. Structurally deficient bridges, congested highways, and decrepit roads are slowing America's transportation system. And the fund paying for state and federal infrastructure is nearing bankruptcy.

With the deadline to pass a bill to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent looming (May 31), transportation is a topic where Congress and the White House are "joined at the hip," said Transportation Department Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday at National Journal's "Running on Empty: Tackling America's Infrastructure Crisis" event, underwritten by Zurich.

The administration's fiscal 2016 budget proposes levying a onetime toll on untaxed foreign earnings currently sitting overseas and using the proceeds to pay for infrastructure projects. But at the event, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, said his party won't go for this plan.

A portion of the money Americans pay at the pump goes to the federal Highway Trust Fund. This gas tax was raised to a little more than 18 cents per gallon during the Clinton administration but hasn't increased since—despite calls from many quarters for a rate hike.

Shuster said he's for what's possible, not impossible, and the gas tax just isn't working. Another option has come from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who has said tax reform could help fuel the Highway Trust Fund. "Everybody wants to do tax reform," Shuster said. "it's just a matter of getting down to business and doing it."

Transportation should be looked at holistically, Shuster suggested. It's not just highways or rails or ports. Rather, it's an interconnected system in need of a fix. "I feel confident that we will do a long-term bill, a five- or six-year bill," Shuster said, "because both sides of the aisle, both sides of the Capitol, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, everybody's talking about a long-term bill."

The American Society of Civil Engineers nearly failed the United States on the condition and performance of the country's infrastructure in its 2013 report card. The nation earned a D+ from the engineering society, which estimated a $3.6 trillion investment is needed for repairs by 2020.

But if political wrangling ensues, which typically happens in funding feuds with tight deadlines, a short-term extension for the highway fund may need to pass—particularly as the law's end brushes up against the beginning of construction season. And a few guests at the event's moderated panel said they think Congress would likely kick the Highway Trust Fund can a bit further down the road.

"As the secretary says, the ball is firmly in our court," Shuster said, adding that a decision on how to proceed is going to be have to be made shortly.