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GOP division emerges from $305B bill

By Bertrand M. Gutiérrez, Winston-Salem Journal

The $305 billion, five-year transportation bill heading to President Barack Obama after clearing the U.S. Senate and House this week includes provisions submitted by U.S. Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., to boost projects in North Carolina.

Passage of the bill — with broad bipartisan support — also served to further highlight divisions within the GOP as most opponents were Republicans.

In the Senate, presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio were among 14 Republicans who voted against the bill, which passed 83-16 Thursday. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate, did not vote.

In the House, the bill passed 359-65. Among North Carolina’s 13-member delegation, five Republicans voted against it, including U.S. Reps. Mark Walker, R-6th, and Virginia Foxx, R-5th.

The bill boosts highway and transit spending and assures states that federal help will be available for major projects. It doesn’t include as much money or last quite as long as many lawmakers and the Obama administration would have liked. Nor does it resolve how to pay for transportation programs in the long term.

In Forsyth County, the bill bolsters such projects as the renovation of Business 40 and the beltway project from U.S. 52 north of Winston-Salem to the existing Interstate 74/U.S. 311 freeway running between Winston-Salem and High Point, according to Pat Ivey, the division engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation in Forsyth County.

In addition, the bill adds money toward one of Forsyth’s longest-running problems: bridge repairs or replacement. Of the 355 bridges countywide, 115 have been classified as structurally deficient, according to the latest state transportation department statistics.

Federal money represents about 25 percent of the state transportation budget, he said.

“All of these projects use federal funds. This will all go a long way … and helps in terms of freight movement and traffic movement. … These federal funds actually expand the number of bridges eligible for federal funding, and that will help reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges in Forsyth County.

“This is a big deal,” Ivey said.

Burr’s office highlighted some of the major projects that the bill may help move along: the Raleigh-Norfolk Corridor, which runs from Raleigh through Rocky Mount, Williamston and Elizabeth City to Norfolk, Va., as well as sections of the U.S. 70 corridor.

“This five-year deal will ensure that North Carolina’s critical highway corridors will see needed infrastructure updates,” Burr said.

Tillis, referring to a “bipartisan team” effort, said: “The end result will be tremendous benefits for the people of North Carolina, including enhanced local economic development, reduced traffic congestion, and improved access to our military bases.”

A big shortcoming in the bill is how it’s financed.

The main source of revenue for transportation is the trust fund, which comes mostly from the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax. That tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 even though transportation spending has risen. But raising the gas tax is viewed by many lawmakers as too politically risky.

To make up the shortfall, the bill uses about $70 billion in mostly budget ploys, including one that would move $53 billion from the Federal Reserve Bank’s capital account to the general treasury.

It’s counted as new money on paper, but is actually just a transfer of funds from one government account to another, federal budget experts said.

Foxx said in an email that she opposed a provision in the bill that renews the Import-Export Bank, a lending agency that some conservatives describe as a form of corporate welfare, and she also raised concerns about how taxpayers will pay for the bill.

“This legislation ... does not address the growing gap between the Highway Trust Fund’s revenues and expenses, instead expanding that gap to increase federal transportation spending,” Foxx said.

Walker’s office could not be reached for comment.

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