Lawmakers Pitch Transport Funding Ideas, From VMT to Freight Taxes

Leaders of the House transportation committee, doggedly pursuing a
six-year, $450 billion infrastructure bill this year, pressed their
case this morning before Ways and Means Committee colleagues who must
approve a new funding mechanism for their massive legislation.

1025_charles_rangel.jpgOn transport funding, a question looms: Whither Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY)? (Photo: BusinessWeek)

"We
should have indexed a long time ago the highway user fee" — also known
as the gas tax — transportation panel chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN)
told the Ways and Means revenue panel. "But that got lost in the
process."

Oberstar asked Ways and Means members to okay a $3 billion patch for the highway trust fund, which is expected to run dry next month.

 That
course would postpone until September the House’s
transportation-funding battle with the White House and the Senate,
where 18 months of stopgap funding is almost certain to be approved
within two weeks.

Ways and Means has dedicated most of its time and energy to health care reform this summer, leading to widespread speculation
that transportation would fall by the wayside. But Rep. Richard Neal
(D-MA), chairman of Ways and Means’ revenue panel, told Oberstar that
he was on the transportation committee’s side.

"I share your position that we should go forward" with a bill this year, Neal told Oberstar.

Yet
the chairman of the full Ways and Means committee, Rep. Charles Rangel
(D-NY), has yet to throw his weight behind Oberstar’s goals. Without
Rangel’s muscle, the thorny question of how to pay for a new
transportation bill would be almost impossible to resolve by the end of
September.

Despite the
uncertainty over revenue, one conclusion was endorsed by liberals and
conservatives alike: the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon "is
basically dead," in the words of the transport committee’s senior
Republican, John Mica (FL).

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who proposed legislation today that would set up nationwide pilot programs on a future vehile miles traveled (VMT) tax, echoed that sentiment.

"We
don’t have enough money to even fund our current inadequate
transportation system," Blumenauer said. "The highway trust fund is in
a death spiral."

Mica suggested replacing the
cents-per-gallon gas tax with a flat sales tax on gas purchases, while
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) proposed forcing Congress to act by timing the
highway trust fund to expire outright in 30 months.

Several other lawmakers looked to freight rail to pay for and expand transportation capacity.

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL) touted his bill
to provide tax credits for companies that build new freight tracks or
terminals. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) suggested levying a freight fee of
0.075 percent per shipment, with a maximum of $500, on goods that
arrive at the nation’s ports.

"You can’t find a greener transportation mode than rail," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), another freight fan.

The testimony from transportation committee members gave today’s hearing a palpable sense of urgency, but that may not be enough to surmount opposition from the Obama administration and the upper chamber of Congress.

With
the House set to depart next week for a month-long recess, the clock is
running out — and a decision is imminent on whether to pass Oberstar’s
$3 billion patch or move closer to the Senate’s $26.8 billion highway trust fund rescue.

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