Key Lawmakers Saying Congress Needs to Find Revenue to Fund Transportation

AASHTO Journal, 9 January 2015

A growing number of leaders in the new Congress are saying lawmakers need to soon deal with infrastructure problems and pass a long-term highway and transit bill. And some from both parties are saying it’s time to consider raising federal motor fuel taxes for the first time since 1993.

That talk comes as many states are grappling with how to pay for their own transportation needs, and as Arkansas has joined Tennessee in stripping out road projects from its 2015 bid list due to uncertainty over when the federal share of project costs would be paid. And it comes at a time pump prices are still plunging for gasoline and diesel fuel.

capitol121514.jpg Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol.

In a Senate now under Republican control, remarks by John Thune and other key committee leaders carry particular weight on infrastructure issues. Long a member of the GOP leadership team, the South Dakota senator now chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that has partial jurisdiction over any highway bill by writing its safety provisions.

Thune told Fox News Sunday Jan. 4 that Congress should consider all revenue options to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, including a higher fuel tax.

His comments were soon echoed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee that will be charged with finding the new revenue to support highway and transit program spending.

By week’s end, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, cast doubt on the possibility of a gas tax increase passing the House, but he did not rule it out and emphasized the need to fund infrastructure.

Thune was first asked if he’d favor hiking fuel taxes in view of currently low gasoline prices. “I don’t favor increasing any tax … but I think we have to look at all the options,” he said. “The highway bill expires at the end of May and there’s about a hundred billion shortfall of what it would take to fund the highway trust fund at the current level of operation.

“So, obviously, we’ve got to deal with it here. And I think there’s a number of ways you could deal with that, and those discussions continue. I think we’ll get to a resolution on that, but it is important we fund infrastructure.”

Thune shared that news segment with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has offered a plan to hike fuel taxes 12 cents a gallon over two years to fund transportation, while cutting some other taxes.

Asked if he would support that plan, Thune said: “Bob Corker has got a proposal out there. There are others who have suggestions as well. We appreciate the fact that we’ve got solutions that are being put forward. I don’t think we take anything off the table at this point. I think it’s important to recognize that we have a problem, an issue that we need a solution for, and we need to look at all the possible ways out there in which we can address the challenge and address the problem.”

Later in the week, Hatch told reporters he is “looking at everything — every possible way of taking care of the highway bill.”

Hatch also said “I prefer not to increase taxes but to me that’s a user fee,” Reuters reported. “People who use the highways ought to pay for them. And that’s a small price to pay to have the best highway system in the world.”

Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, now chairing the Environment and Public Works Committee that will produce the highway programs portion of a surface transportation billl, said that legislation will be EPW’s first order of business this year and “everything is on the table” to produce revenue for it.

Inhofe, like Hatch Corker, prefers to call the motor fuels tax a transportation “user fee.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who previously chaired EPW and is now its ranking member, urged Republicans to tackle a highway bill as a jobs measure rather than try to pass a Keystone XL pipeline measure. “Republican leadership should immediately take up the highway bill, which supports millions of jobs and will run out of funding in four short months,” she said.

Boxer, who shepherded the 2012 MAP-21 highway bill to completion with Inhofe as her ranking member, tried last year to pass a long-term bill before Congress settled for the short-term extension. She announced Jan. 8 she will not run for re-election in 2016, so this Congress will be her last chance to help enact a long-term bill.

Some recent reports had other lawmakers, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., expressing doubt that Congress would hike fuel taxes.

In his Jan. 8 weekly press conference, Speaker Boehner was asked about gas taxes, given all the comments by lawmakers and low pump prices.

“I have never voted to raise the gas tax,” he said. “Funding a highway bill is critically important. It’s a priority for this year. How we fund it, we’re going to have to work our way through this.”

Boehner also said “it’s doubtful that the votes are here to raise the gas tax.” When asked about Corker’s proposal, to pair a gas tax hike with a cut in income taxes, Boehner said: “There’s a lot of people with a lot of ideas. We’ve got to find a way to deal with America’s crumbling infrastructure, and we need to do it in a long-term program that is in fact funded.” (You can view a CSPAN video of that press conference; his gas tax remarks start about three minutes in.)

Separately, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told NBC’s “Meet the Press” she thought Democrats and Republicans could work across the party aisle to pass infrastructure legislation. She suggested paying for it by repatriating foreign profits of U.S. corporations, an idea that Shuster has also mentioned.

And Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he will introduce legislation to authorize a multiyear, $1 trillion program to address the large backlog of road and bridge projects plus work on other types of infrastructure.

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