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Obama Takes Infrastructure Push to Congress; Lawmakers Wrestle With Funding

President Obama used his sixth State of the Union address to urge Congress to pass a long-term transportation infrastructure bill, but avoided specific proposals as he called for a "bipartisan" plan.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress have said they plan to send Obama a bill ordering construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, but the White House has said the president would veto it if the measure reaches his desk.

"Twenty-first Century businesses need 21st Century infrastructure -- modern ports, and stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this," Obama said in his speech. "Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come."

The president again suggested tapping a potential windfall from changing corporate tax law to entice companies to repatriate foreign earnings they've parked overseas, and using the tax receipts to pay for infrastructure investments including highway and transit projects.

Some lawmakers have suggested raising federal motor fuel excise taxes that mainly support the Highway Trust Fund, now that pump prices are plunging and the economy has strengthened.

Obama drew applause when he said "thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save about $750 at the pump." But he did not tie that development to transportation spending.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who this month took over the chairmanship of the tax-writing Finance Committee that would have to find revenue for any highway bill, told reporters in recent days he does not think a gas tax increase can pass the House, and that foreign profit repatriations would not bring in enough revenue for infrastructure.

Earlier, after a number of senators said they could support a gas tax increase, the chairman of the House tax-writing panel doused the idea. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., who now chairs the Ways and Means Committee, had told reporters Jan. 15: "We won't pass a gas tax increase."

In a Jan. 20 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the Finance Committee's priorities and agenda for this year, Hatch said, "In the tax space, we also have to work to fund the highway bill. As you all know, the latest iteration of highway funding expires in May. Whether we address that as a standalone or as part of tax reform, we're going to work to find a long-term funding solution to pay for our highways."

On Jan. 22, Rep. Bill Shuster, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee that will write highway and transit authorizing legislation, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that "I just don't believe the votes are there" to raise the fuel tax. He again mentioned the possibility of funding transportation through repatriation of foreign profits in a tax reform, but said the revenue options are in the purview of the Ways and Means Committee.

From the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, CEO Pete Ruane said: "Since the beginning of the year, Republican and Democratic congressional leaders in the House and Senate have frequently referred to a highway bill as one of their 2015 priorities. President Obama made similar statements in his State of the Union speech. Taken together, it leads us to wonder, 'What are you waiting for?'"

Source: AASHTO