Senate committee reiterates Trust Fund crisis

| 4/23/2008

If federal transportation funding remains at its current level, the Highway Trust Fund will go broke sometime in 2009, federal officials say. Recommendations by an appointed federal commission include raising fuel taxes to boost revenue.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is one of several committees discussing possible solutions to the crisis with members of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

“We’ve already seen the consequences of a persistent insufficient investment in surface transportation; the deterioration of surface transportation assets; increased highway casualties; and growing congestion that affects all modes of surface transportation and stifles economic development,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-AR, who chaired the hearing Tuesday, April 22.

Surface Transportation Commission Vice Chairman Jack Schenendorf told senators that the federal government, state and local governments, and the private sector will need to dedicate $225 billion each year over the next 50 years to upgrade and improve the nation’s surface transportation system. The current amount of funding is about one-quarter of that, he said.

Commissioners say significant increases in federal fuel taxes are needed in the short term to boost the trust fund, while the long-term solution involves taxes on vehicle-miles traveled.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, says a substantial increase in fuel taxes, if proposed, would be a “non-starter” in Congress.

“While there may be merit to indexing the federal gas tax, a 25-cent or more per-gallon increase in the tax is unacceptable,” she said. “It is even more unacceptable in Texas, where, as a donor state, we forgo needed infrastructure improvements every year by sending millions of gas dollars to other states.”

Federal fuel taxes haven’t changed since 1993.

Neither the members of the appointed commission nor the senators attending Tuesday’s hearing were keen on tolling or privatization as solutions to the crisis.

“I support tolling if it is going to create additional lanes, where you keep the freeways that are already built with the same number of free lanes,” said Hutchison. “I just can’t support the proposal to toll existing lanes. The federal government and the states built these roads using federal funding with a commitment that they would remain free lanes.”

The current viewpoint of the Bush administration and U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters is to reduce the federal role and allow states to build toll roads and lease infrastructure to the private sector.

Peters, a member of the Surface Transportation Commission, was among the minority that produced a dissenting report that favors privatization.

Patrick Quinn, CEO of U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc. and member of the federal commission, is among those who believe tolling and privatization do nothing to rescue the Highway Trust Fund.

“From the trucking industry perspective, the allure of privatization of the nation’s highway infrastructure runs counter to the very needs of interstate commerce and a national highway network,” he said.

Frank Busalacchi, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, also denounced tolling as a major method of funding transportation.

“A large part of the commerce that flows in and out of our state is by truck, so we’re cognizant of the fact that truckers will be affected as well,” he said.

Federal lawmakers are promising more hearings on the topic of funding leading up to the 2009 reauthorization legislation for highway funding

– By David Tanner, staff writer