A long road to the next ‘highway bill’

| 4/9/2008

Members of Congress have begun a long journey to write the next major transportation funding legislation, which is due in 2009.

One important leg of the journey began on Wednesday, April 9, with a hearing in the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The hearing dealt with congestion and other challenges that metropolitan areas face. It was the first in a series of subcommittee hearings that will review freight and goods movement; infrastructure preservation and modernization; highway safety; mobility; connectivity of rural areas; and other issues.

“The solutions aren’t easy, and there is no silver bullet,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR. “We need to look at multiple answers to the problems our metropolitan areas face.”

DeFazio, who is chairman of the subcommittee, and others have taken issue with Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and the Bush administration’s viewpoint that the federal role in funding transportation be frozen or reduced in favor of more private-sector involvement.

“Without substantial commitment on the federal level, our transportation infrastructure will continue to deteriorate to a Third World status, and our economy will fall behind those countries that are making the necessary improvements,” DeFazio said.

Six panelists called to testify at the hearing Wednesday came from different backgrounds. One panelist, Ron Sims, is King County executive in the Seattle area. He said he believes that variable tolling – often referred to as congestion pricing – should be implemented in major metro areas with toll revenue dedicated to mass transit programs.

Other panelists, including Jolene Molitoris, assistant director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said that rather than shift the burden of funding to cities and states, the federal government should increase its funding level and role in the future.

“What kind of system do we need to have, and how are we going to pay for it? I can’t imagine it’s possible to do it without the federal partnership,” she said.

Panelists and subcommittee members discussed fuel taxes, tolls and other forms of taxation as possible ways to keep the transportation system viable in the future.

Rep. John J. Duncan, R-TN, the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, cautioned against increasing federal and state fuel taxes as a method of pricing people off the highways.

“Some groups want to put gas up even higher to cause people to drive less, but that would be the final nail in the coffin,” Duncan said.

During the next few months, members of the subcommittee and other committees will arm themselves with congressional testimony, commission reports and studies to guide the future of transportation and the philosophies behind funding it.

As chairman of the House T & I Committee, Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, will take the lead role in shaping the 2009 legislation. He attended the subcommittee hearing Wednesday to provide input and hear testimony.

– By David Tanner, staff writer