WASHINGTON, June 17, 2015 – The House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing today on how to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent, in both the long and short term.
The fund, due to expire July 31, pays for construction and improvements to the nation’s highways and bridges, but has been kept afloat with a series of short-term extensions, leaving planners uncertain of the future of their projects. The fund is currently operating under on a two-month extension.
In his opening statement, committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the current user pay system funded by the gas tax doesn’t raise enough to fulfill the needs of the fund. He said this is due partially to more fuel efficient cars, something he noted was “a good problem to have.” While he pointed out that there “is no easy solution,” he said he wanted to “find a real solution; a permanent solution.”
Michigan Democrat and committee ranking member Sander Levin said the key words for his side of the aisle were “long term,” a sentiment shared by many GOP members. Where most members divided along party lines, however, was a potential increase to the gas tax, something Ryan said would not be touched. Levin said every possibility for improving the fund should be under consideration.
“All options should be on the table except doing nothing,” Levin said at the hearing. He said simply excluding a potential option creates “a stalemating of action.”
Reps. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, and Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., discussed their own efforts to reform the fund, the Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act (H.R. 1846). The bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Dan Lipinski D-Ill., indexes the gas tax for inflation to fund short-term needs and creates a bipartisan, bicameral committee to determine the best path forward for long-term funding. Pascrell said Congress shouldn’t be afraid to touch the gas tax, something he contends is necessary for the future of the fund.
“Why are we afraid to touch the live wire here? Why are we afraid to do this when it must be done?” Pascrell said noting that indexing the gas tax could generate an additional $27.5 billion over 10 years. “At least we would have done something tangible instead of talking the damn thing to death.”
The panel also discussed a potential pay-per-mile model where those who drive more miles would pay higher fees due to their increased use of infrastructure. South Dakota Republican Kristi Noem said this could lead to rural drivers paying more because of the greater distances required for travel in more remote areas of the country. She said this would be “placing a higher burden” on certain people just because of where they live.
Robert Poole, director of transportation policy with the Reason Foundation and a witness at the hearing, suggested modifications such as higher fees for better highways, so rates would be different on an interstate than on a gravel road. Privacy issues were also brought up because this model would require increased monitoring of where citizens were driving.
With a July 31 deadline looming, the likelihood of a comprehensive highway bill is unlikely. Without new legislation, both chambers would have to approve another extension before the August recess to prevent the fund from expiring. Bill Graves, a former Kansas governor and currently the president and CEO of the American Trucking Association, said potential truck drivers are already avoiding the career path because of the state of America’s infrastructure. If something isn’t done, he said the U.S. could face potential consequences in the global economy.
“A lot of people are turning away from our industry just because the conditions of the nation’s highways are just so that they don’t want to (become a truck driver),” Graves told the lawmakers. “We are going to lose our competitive edge as a country vis-a-vis the rest of the world if we don’t figure this one out.”
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