The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee plans to mark up a bill to reauthorize funding for the system responsible for moving the nation’s cargo and passenger traffic before leaving town for the August recess.
Committee Chair John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and his staff confirmed intentions to address a bill in an Aug. 1 business meeting, but specifics have yet to be ironed out on what the piece of legislation before the committee will look like.
“If we do not pass a long-term surface transportation bill, and instead pass a series of short-term extensions, we will undermine our states’ abilities to plan for these challenges,” Barrasso said at an EPW hearing Wednesday.
He said the legislation will be a five-year package “to fix our roads, our bridges, and our highways.” Barrasso said he and Delaware’s Tom Carper, the committee’s top Democrat, will need to produce a bill that doesn’t add to the deficit.
“This will be the most substantial highway bill ever passed by Congress — and it needs to be paid for,” Barrasso said.
Among the challenges facing the committee will be how to treat funding sources for highway improvements, especially with the advent of hybrid and electric vehicles. Repair and maintenance has traditionally been funded through the gas tax, but an increasing number of vehicles on the roads need substantially less gas or no gas at all.
For his part, Carper suggested a focus on how far cars and trucks are going rather than what is fueling their journey.
“I think, ultimately, what we need to move to is a vehicle miles traveled approach,” Carper said. He suggested such a change wouldn’t necessarily happen immediately, but could be phased in over 10 years. He also solicited the feedback of witnesses at the hearing, who acknowledged a focus on miles would potentially help ease the issues caused by shrinking gas tax revenue.
Max Kuney, the chairman of the Highway and Transportation Division of the Associated General Contractors of America, said a VMT “is potentially where we might need to be” since the gas tax is “a diminishing return funding source.”
“AJC is very supportive of anything that will fund the highway trust fund, for sure,” he said. “The gas tax is the easy short-term answer, but when you look long-term, we're supportive of a national pilot.”
Among other issues mentioned at the hearing, Barrasso said regulatory relief for infrastructure construction would also be a focus of the bill.
A highway bill was last passed in 2015, when Congress sent the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act to the president’s desk. That bill contained more than $300 billion in funding through FY 2020.
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