Senators call for Highway Trust Fund to be fixed – now

| 6/25/2008

Sixty-seven U.S. senators have signed a letter calling on Senate leadership to approve legislation to fix the Highway Trust Fund. In the letter dated Friday, June 20, the senators get right to the point, stating that the purchasing power of the Highway Trust Fund continues to decline in hard times and without new revenue.

One of the lesser recognized effects of the recent economic downturn and rising energy prices has been a slowdown in projected revenues into the federal Highway Trust Fund,” stated Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking committee Republican.

If left unaddressed, the trust fund will likely go broke sometime in 2009, Boxer and Inhofe wrote.

“We urge you to support fixing this looming crisis this fiscal year,” the senators stated in the letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY; Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-MT; and Chuck Grassley, R-IA, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee.

Click here to read the letter in full.

Members of Congress are preparing to write the next transportation funding reauthorization bill in 2009. The new bill will replace SAFETEA-LU, the 2005 reauthorization known as the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users.

Although no direct solutions were offered in the letter, Boxer and Inhofe offered suggestions and matters for debate during a full Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Wednesday, June 25.

Boxer said high fuel prices are forcing people to drive less or switch to more efficient vehicles. These changes diminish the buying power of the trust fund, she said, meaning less revenue goes into the fund.

Boxer pointed to a federal commission report released in January that calls for the eventual replacement of the fuel-tax system by 2025 with a tax on vehicle-miles traveled.

But that’s long-term, she said.

“To maintain what we have … just for the highway piece, we’re short $50 billion per year and on the transit side, we’re short $10 billion per year,” Boxer said.

Some of the panelists at the hearing, including Samuel Staley of the Reason Foundation, believe that the private sector should help fund transportation through the construction and operation of toll roads. The matter of tolling and public-private partnerships continues to be a controversial topic among highway-user groups.

Kathleen Marvaso, vice president of public affairs for AAA, said highway users foot the bill regardless of the funding method.

“Considering that we have a very serious gap in the funding and the need for such significant investment, one way or another it’s going to come down to the road users,” Marvaso said.

“They’re going to be paying these fees whether it’s in gas taxes or road fees or registration fees for vehicles.”

Baucus attended the hearing and spoke of the need for a strong federal role in transportation funding including a strengthened Highway Trust Fund.

Funding discussions remain ongoing as a number of committees and lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to schedule hearings, review reports, and consider legislation.

The U.S. senators who signed the letter, in alphabetical order, are:

Lamar Alexander, R-TN
John Barrasso, R-WY
Robert Bennett, R-UT
Joseph Biden, D-DE
Jeff Bingaman, D-NM
Christopher Bond, R-MO
Barbara Boxer, D-CA
Sherrod Brown, D-OH
Sam Brownback, R-KS
Benjamin Cardin, D-MD
Thomas Carper, D-DE
Robert Casey, D-PA
Saxby Chambliss, R-GA
Hillary Clinton, D-NY
Thad Cochran, R-MS
Norm Coleman, R-MN
Susan Collins, R-ME
John Cornyn, R-TX
Larry Craig, R-ID
Mike Crapo, R-ID
Christopher Dodd, D-CT
Elizabeth Dole, R-NC
Pete Domenici, R-NM
Byron Dorgan, D-ND
Michael Enzi, R-WY
Dianne Feinstein, D-CA
Lindsey Graham, R-SC
Chuck Hagel, R-NE
Tom Harkin, D-IA
Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX
James Inhofe, R-OK
Johnny Isakson, R-GA
Tim Johnson, D-SD
John Kerry, D-MA
Amy Klobuchar, D-MN
Herbert Kohl, D-WI
Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ
Patrick Leahy, D-VT
Carl Levin, D-MI
Joseph Lieberman, I-CT
Blanche Lincoln, D-AR
Mel Martinez, R-FL
Robert Menendez, D-NJ
Barbara Mikulski, D-MD
Lisa Murkowski, R-AK
Ben Nelson, D-NE
Bill Nelson, D-FL
Mark Pryor, D-AR
Jack Reed, D-RI
Pat Roberts, R-KS
John Rockefeller, D-WV
Ken Salazar, D-CO
Bernard Sanders, I-VT
Richard Shelby, R-AL
Gordon Smith, R-OR
Olympia Snowe, R-ME
Arlen Specter, R-PA
Debbie Stabenow, D-MI
Ted Stevens, R-AK
John Sununu, R-NH
John Thune, R-SD
David Vitter, R-LA
George Voinovich, R-OH
John Warner, R-VA
Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI
Roger Wicker, R-MS
Ron Wyden, D-OR

– By David Tanner, staff writer