WASHINGTON, July 1, 2015 – While the needs of the nation’s rural transportation systems don’t get nearly as much attention as their urban counterparts, they did have their day on Capitol Hill last week as part of a broader discussion over federal highway funding.
A House subcommittee on highways and transit examined how more remote parts of the country may be affected by continued uncertainty over the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. The fund is set to expire at the end of July after a two-month extension was approved in May.
Like many of their urban colleagues, rural transportation officials said their projects are suffering because of uncertainty about funding.
“No matter the geographic region, the simple, unifying fact is that America needs a federal transportation program that provides robust investment levels coupled with long-term funding stability that serves our national priorities,” Paul Trombino III, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, said at the hearing.
The hearing’s five witnesses focused on the uses of rural roads, ranging from cars providing basic transportation to large trucks hauling large quantities of grain, livestock and fertilizer on roads and bridges in need of repair. Funding issues and the how to split responsibility between local and federal entities was also discussed.
While the traffic total may not be as high as in urban areas, Bob Fox, a commissioner in Minnesota’s Renville County, said a disaster could be just as imminent on America’s backroads as on the country’s superhighways.
“If we do nothing, the problem will only get worse. The collapse that we witnessed in Minnesota back in 2005 – which was in a metropolitan area – someday will happen in a rural area just as well,” Fox said, referencing the I-35 bridge that collapsed during evening rush hour in August 2007, killing 13 people. He said it “may not be with rush hour traffic . . . but there will be a semi load of grain or a piece of machinery,” that could suffer the same fate.
Fox and others on the panel were also supportive of the reauthorization of MAP 21, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which was signed into law in 2012 and was the first long-term highway authorization since 2005. The measure provided $105 billion for transportation programs for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.
The Highway Trust Fund is supported mainly by the federal gasoline tax, which has held steady at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.The tax is generating less revenue today than in years past due to more fuel-efficient vehicles and less overall driving. Attempts to raise the tax have been blocked by House Republicans, who say it would hit middle class Americans hardest, especially truckers – the tax is 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel.
In his opening statement, subcommittee chair Sam Graves, R-Mo., said he was working with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., on a “long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill that will provide reliable funding for our states.” Graves also mentioned that Shuster was in conversations with House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on the same subject. While Graves said finding a long-term solution before the end of July is unlikely, he said he’s hopeful for passage of a long-term bill “later this year.”
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