Federal Update
The long and the short of it
Lawmakers send $7 billion to Highway Trust Fund; long-term solutions still sought

By David Tanner
staff writer


The first nine months of 2009 were chock-full of compelling transportation talk on Capitol Hill, starting with the White House stimulus package and ending in a battle of wills in the House and Senate.

The remaining quarter of 2009 has shaped up to be action-packed as lawmakers resume debate about how to fund transportation in both the short term and long term.

The short-term debate has centered on the Highway Trust Fund, the stalwart of highway and infrastructure funding since the creation of interstate highways. For the second time in two years, lawmakers were forced to take emergency action to save the fund from bankruptcy.

House and Senate lawmakers and President Obama wasted little time in restoring $7 billion to highways in August from the U.S. Treasury. In 2008, Congress and then-President Bush were forced to enact a similar transaction for $8 billion. Both transactions involved restoring money that was previously diverted from transportation.

With the Trust Fund shored up, at least for a few months, the debate raged on over long-term funding.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, kicked off that discussion when he unveiled a $450 billion surface transportation authorization bill in early summer. At press time, the bill was in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which Oberstar chairs.

The authorization bill, commonly referred to as the “highway bill,” still has a long way to go before it can become law. The Senate has made sure of that.

Senate committees, with support from the White House and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, pushed out a separate bill to delay passage of a highway bill for 18 months.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led the charge in an effort to buy time for Congress to find a supplement to fuel taxes. Federal fuel taxes have remained unchanged since 1993.

 The Senate action was aimed at extending the current highway program, known as SAFETEA-LU, for 18 months.

House lawmakers fired back by demanding action on a long-term highway bill as soon as possible.

But funding a five- or six-year highway bill remains the biggest unanswered question of the year in transportation on Capitol Hill.

 Many lawmakers are against raising fuel taxes in a time of economic recession, and some have brought forward alternatives.

Some lawmakers are making a push to implement a new tax on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT.

While the concept of a VMT has intrigued some, OOIDA and other highway-user groups believe the concept is not ready for implementation.

 The Association also says the issue of personal privacy still needs to be settled. A VMT would use GPS technology to track miles traveled for each vehicle. Vehicle owners would then be billed accordingly.

Many lawmakers say tax increases, at least in some form, are inevitable to fund the next generation of transportation programs.

Congress may pin hopes on some form of tolling, but indications are that tolling will be reserved for new lane capacity only.

An interesting concept floated by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, would tax oil market speculators for each transaction. He says taxing speculators would keep oil prices down while generating billions for transportation.

Some Senate Republicans suggested taking unspent money from the White House stimulus package and applying it to transportation, but several bills relating to that idea fell short in committee.

Lawmakers, urged on by the recommendations of two federal commissions, may explore increases to the Heavy Vehicle Use Tax, licensing and other fees that affect the bottom line of truckers.

OOIDA leaders and members continue to push Congress to plug the hole in the bucket by fixing the way tax dollars are spent. Highway funds should be spent on highways alone, the Association contends.

Only then will OOIDA entertain the discussion about possible tax increases. LL