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Mr. LIEBERMAN. Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the transportation reauthorization bill that passed today. Having served on past transportation bill conference committees, I know the long hours and intense negotiations that were required to prepare this bill for consideration today, and I want to extend my congratulations, appreciation, and respect to Senators Boxer and Inhofe. I know from past experience that they are both principled, tough negotiators, and I am sure that is why the transportation bill returned from conference with so many key provisions intact.
In March, the Senate acted in a bipartisan manner to pass a transportation bill that contained significant achievements for our country, and would have greatly benefited my State of Connecticut. The bill would have reduced red tape for transportation projects while still protecting our environment and resources. It included a provision I worked on with my colleague from Delaware, Senator Carper, which would have required cities and States to take air quality goals into account when drafting transportation plans. It also would have provided mass transit benefits the same tax beneficial treatment as parking benefits, and would have funded Connecticut's transportation programs at a level that met our basic needs for the next few years.
The bill that came back from conference retained many of these provisions, but I regret to see that it weakened others and discarded some of the rest. As I stated earlier, I am no stranger to working on a conference committee, and I fully realize that the best legislation is produced through a give and take on various issues. Clearly, that was the case here. Despite my disappointment on some of these compromises, I believe that it was essential that we acted to ensure that our national transportation programs did not lapse on July 1, and that is why I supported the transportation bill conference report. I would like to take a few minutes to briefly explain some of my concerns, and why I ultimately voted the way I did.
My concerns can generally be broken down into three categories: environmental, Connecticut-specific programs, and the long-term viability of the transportation system. First, let me touch upon the environment. We have come a long way since the days when Federal and State transportation departments labored under the mistaken belief that building our roads and highways bigger was better, no matter the consequences. We have long since realized that land deserves to be preserved, the purity of our water protected, and our air quality improved. I worry that the bill would be a step backwards because it would waive environmental reviews of many transportation projects, including some in environmentally endangered areas of our country. By providing a categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act for any projects within an existing operational right-of-way, I can foresee wetlands being filled, sensitive habitat threatened, and resources spoiled, all without any environmental review. There is a right way and a wrong way to expedite projects, and I believe this is the wrong way. I understand this was a necessary concession in order to get a conference report agreed to, but I hope it will be addressed in the future.
The second concern I have is the impact of the bill on my State, Connecticut. The Federal highway program is just that: a Federal program that is intended to address the needs of the national transportation system. Nonetheless, our country's different regions have particular needs. Connecticut, and the Northeast in general, have urgent needs when it comes to transportation. My State has one of our Nation's oldest transportation systems, because Connecticut has been around a long time, one of the Nation's highest ratios of traffic volume to miles of road, and is a frequent pass-through State for commuters throughout the Northeast. Federal transportation funding should go to areas with the greatest need, just as happens with other government programs such as farm subsidies and disaster relief. Connecticut residents do not protest these agricultural support programs despite our paying a disproportionate share of taxes for them, but we deserve to receive adequate funds to address our unique transportation needs. Under this bill, Connecticut will receive inadequate funding. I would urge my colleagues to reconsider this problem, as well as the 95 percent minimum rate of return for all States, during deliberations on the next transportation bill just as we did during consideration of the 2005 transportation bill.
Finally, I want to take a moment to address a growing concern across the country: the future of our Highway Trust Fund. Since the establishment of the Federal highway system, we have utilized a user-fee system to fund our transportation programs. That system served us well for years, and relied on a gas tax to fill the Highway Trust Fund, which in turn distributed funds to our States. As is so often the case, with the good comes the bad: as we make cars that are more fuel efficient, thereby cleaning up our air and reducing emissions, we also purchase less gas per mile driven, and the amount of money flowing into the Trust Fund shrinks as a result. The gas tax has stayed static at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Because it is not adjusted for inflation, the federal gas tax has experienced a cumulative loss in purchasing power of 33 percent since 1993. For 4 years now, the Trust Fund has been running a deficit and we have had to bail it out with transfers from the Treasury. This is not the way the system was meant to work, and it is not a way it can long survive.
The blame lies at all of our feet. Neither party has had the courage to face the reality that we are running out of money for our roads and bridges. Instead of dealing with the problem, we have continued to bail out the trust fund, hoping that some future Congress will take necessary steps to fix this problem. I applaud my colleague from Wyoming, Senator Enzi, who took a stand and proposed adjusting the gas tax for inflation, basically a half-cent a gallon increase. This could have gone a long way to reducing the amount of money we need to use to bailout the trust fund. Unfortunately, we never had a chance to discuss the matter. I understand that colleagues do not want to talk about raising taxes. But in the end we have no choice but to talk about raising taxes if we want our transportation infrastructure to keep pace with our people's needs.
We need leadership from Congress, and the President, to face the facts: our transportation system is both broke and broken. The system does not have funds for some basic repairs, let alone to make the new investments for infrastructure we urgently need. In 2002, the United States was ranked fifth, in terms of infrastructure quality, worldwide. Today, we have dropped to twenty-fourth. We have fallen 19 places down in less than a decade.
Unfortunately, the large-scale investments we need will not be possible until we can fix the funding issue. The Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended a 5-cent per year increase to the gas tax for 3 years. Others have recommended shifting to a system that charges users for vehicle-miles-travelled. Such a VMT would ensure that those driving fuel efficient, electric, or alternative fuel vehicles pay for the wear-and-tear to the roads they cause. Although I will not be a member of the Senate when the next transportation bill is debated, I would urge my colleagues to begin to address this issue before the trust fund goes broke once again. Washington must have the courage to keep all options on the table, and then do what works to fix this problem.
In closing, I wish to again express my gratitude to Senators Boxer and Inhofe. This is a true jobs bill, and it will guarantee that millions of construction workers are still employed come Sunday, that student loan interest rates do not double this school year, and that our truly important flood insurance program will be reauthorized.
I thank Senator Boxer, Senator Inhofe, the staff of the EPW committee, as well as the staffers at the Departments of Transportation both in Washington and Connecticut, for their efforts in bringing this bill to fruition.
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