GOP should be its champion

Before Americans give up completely on Congress, we note a significant bipartisan success last week in the Senate: passage of a badly needed two-year transportation bill.

Approved by a solid 74-22 majority, it would invest $109 billion in needed road, rail, ferry and transit projects, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide — including more than 30,000 here in Washington. The bill replaces funding that’s due to expire March 31.

It’s hardly a done deal, however. House Speaker John Boehner, as he has on other issues, tried and failed to persuade his Republican caucus to adopt a five-year transportation package. Now, with the clock ticking on another major federal responsibility — current funding and the authority to collect the federal gas tax will expire in two weeks without action — the House should simply adopt the Senate plan, punting a longer-range plan to the next Congress.

The Senate plan isn’t perfect, but it does include some important reforms — along with making crucial investments that support business activity by keeping workers, consumers and freight moving.

It consolidates some 90 federal transportation programs down to 30, reduces red tape that delays projects, gives states money for reducing traffic congestion, and expands a program that provides loan guarantees to encourage private investment, the Washington Post reported.

What it doesn’t do, not surprisingly given the current partisan divide, is tackle the nation’s long-term transportation funding problem. Just as gas-tax revenues are flattening at the state level, the move to more fuel-efficient vehicles has reduced the flow of federal gas taxes.

If we’re going to keep up with maintenance needs, let alone embark on new projects, new revenue sources must be identified soon.

It ought to be one of the few taxing-and-spending areas where bipartisan majorities can agree. As the Senate’s Republican leader on transportation, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said after the bill’s passage Wednesday, “I’ve always said that conservatives should be big in two areas: national defense and infrastructure.”

Indeed, funding for the transportation infrastructure that helped make the United States an economic powerhouse was supported by successive generations of Republicans and Democrats. They understood the overwhelming payoff that comes from such investments — immediately in jobs and over decades in economic activity that wouldn’t happen without a robust transportation system.

In the GOP-controlled House, however, efforts by a new core of conservatives who want to kill long-range transit funding, instead appropriating money year-to-year, is holding more forward-thinking Republicans, including the speaker, at bay. Transit projects, by definition, require long-range planning and thus reliable, long-range funding.

If the strategy is to gradually shrink funding for transit, which reduces traffic congestion and air pollution, it must be defeated. Responsible members of the House, on both sides of the aisle, should follow the Senate’s bipartisan lead and pass this bill.