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Candidates diverge on highway funding

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Candidates in the 21st Congressional District race have differing ideas about ways to increase federal funding for highway and bridge construction and public transit systems.

However, none of the three candidates supports increasing the federal motor fuels tax, which historically has been the primary revenue source for these projects.

Democratic and Working Families Party candidate Aaron G. Woolf favors an Obama administration plan to supplement the federal motor fuels tax with a one-time infusion of $150 billion in revenue from reforming the tax code.

“The United States used to have the greatest infrastructure in the world. Today, however, our roads and bridges are in desperate repair,” Mr. Woolf said in a prepared statement.

Elise M. Stefanik, the Republican and Conservative Party candidate, said Obama’s four-year transportation plan, known as the Grow America Act, is not serious enough and does not reform the funding and administrative process.

“We need to make sure that our local and state governments have more of a role in identifying what the needs are in the community, so that it’s not a top-down approach,” she said in a telephone interview. “The people that know best are the ones that drive the roads on a daily basis to do business or to go to their jobs and travel within communities.”

Ms. Stefanik said she supports an unspecified plan that would reform the tax code and the federal budget to provide dependable transportation funding on a long-range basis.

“We need to rethink the tax code and figure out ways to fund a highway bill that is not just a stopgap measure, but actually is a long-term infrastructure solution,” she said.

Green Party candidate Matthew J. Funiciello said the federal motor fuels tax and federal income tax should be replaced with a consumption tax. This would be similar to sales tax and would, among other things, fund a transportation plan that places more emphasis on public transit and rail.

Federal economic development funding should be redirected to transportation, he said during an interview in Glens Falls.

“If we can divert those funds, instead, into building mass transit, it isn’t an issue of greater taxation. It’s an issue of revitalizing the funds,” he said.

Congress has been unable for several years to reach agreement on a new long-term highway bill. Instead, Congress has passed a series of short-term extensions of the previous highway bill.

The latest extension expires in May, making transportation a priority issue when the new local congressional representative takes office in January.

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, is not seeking re-election.

One of the major sticking points has been how to supplement federal motor fuels revenue, which has not kept pace with inflation and infrastructure construction needs.

The 18.4 cents-per-gallon motor fuels tax was last increased in 1993.

All of the 21st Congressional District candidates oppose increasing the motor fuels tax.

Mr. Funiciello said the motor fuels tax, based on the number of gallons purchased, is outmoded in an era of fuel efficient vehicles.

“If we raise the gas tax ... we’re still looking at a shortfall,” he said.

“I think we need to rethink how we’re funding infrastructure here. So I certainly don’t support increasing any taxes that we have,” Ms. Stefanik said.

Asked about Mr. Funiciello’s proposal for a consumption tax, Ms. Stefanik said “fundamental tax reform” is necessary.

“I think we need to look at economic growth as a way of providing the funds for infrastructure. We need to focus on creating jobs,” she said.

“With too many north country citizens working harder than ever to make ends meet, we should not be raising the gas tax,” Mr. Woolf said in a prepared statement.

Mr. Woolf did not return repeated requests over an eight-day period to comment for this report.

Campaign spokesman Yianni Varonis said Mr. Woolf was busy campaigning, and would discuss transportation issues at a transportation forum the campaign is planning later in the fall.

Mr. Varonis said Mr. Woolf would not discuss transportation issues with a reporter when Mr. Woolf campaigned in South Glens Falls on Aug. 28 because he was not accompanied by a press spokesman.

Transit funding has been another sticking point.

Since 1983, the federal Mass Transit Account, which funds transit systems, has received 2.86 cents per gallon of the federal motor fuels tax, with the rest of the tax going to the Highway Trust Fund.

Some in Congress support shifting transit funding to a new Alternative Transportation account, which would be funded from the general fund.

Opponents of the change, including Mr. Owens, have said shifting it to the general fund would make year-to-year funding unpredictable, and place funding at the whim of the budget process.

The issue has implications within the congressional district.

Greater Glens Falls Transit receives about one-third of its annual budget from the federal mass transit fund.

Also, unpredictable funding could cause transit systems in major metropolitan areas to cut back on replacing subway cars, which would reduce business for rail car manufacturers in Plattsburgh, Mr. Owens has said.

Ms. Stefanik said an overhaul of transportation funding should include a predictable method of mass transit funding.

Mr. Funiciello said a set percentage of federal transportation funding should be designated for mass transit.

Mr. Woolf did not respond to repeated requests to discuss mass transit funding.

All three candidates said they support adding a rail component to the federal highway bill.

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