Senate hearing addresses fuel taxes, VMT taxes, trucking issues

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 2/14/2019

Less than one week after a House committee held a hearing on infrastructure, the Senate conducted their version of the topic on Wednesday, Feb. 13. Much like the House hearing, a common theme regarding funding was increasing the fuel tax now and transitioning to a vehicle miles traveled tax.

Titled “America’s Infrastructure Needs: Keeping Pace with a Growing Economy,” the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation heard testimony from stakeholders about what needs to be done about the nation’s infrastructure. With input from the port, railroad, cable and trucking industries, the hearing touched upon a wide variety of topics.

Fuel and VMT taxes

One area that witnesses and most of the senators agreed on was the need to increase the federal fuel tax for immediate funding. The American Association of Port Authorities, Association of American Railroads, American Trucking Associations and Transportation Trades Department all mentioned the need to increase the fuel tax during their opening statements. With no horse in the race, the American Cable Association did not weigh in on the issue.

“We have long supported efforts for a modest increase in the federal gas tax, which remains the most efficient and reliable means to raise revenue for our surface transportation network,” said Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

Among the senators on the committee, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was the only one who appeared openly against a fuel tax increase. Sen. Lee argued that a fuel tax increase will have a negative impact on lower income families and rural residents who have to driver greater distances.

“We ought to look for ways that don’t involve raising taxes on poor families,” Lee said.

Most everyone agreed that in the long-term, the fuel tax should be replaced by a VMT tax. When addressing the issue of long-term funding, ATA President Chris Spear fell short of mentioning a VMT tax.

“We recommend a 10-year strategy that could include creation of a blue-ribbon commission to explore the results of pilot programs already completed or underway, with recommendations for either further research or a proposal for Congress to adopt a new funding approach,” Spear said.

Spear said that ATA was open to a dialogue about “technology-based” user fees.

Trucking-specific issues

Several topics directly related to trucking were discussed during the hearing, including parking, truck emissions and the workforce.

On the issue of truck parking, Spear said it has not been a priority given the shortage of funds for essential highway projects. Spear suggested funding specific to truck parking,

“Therefore, we support the creation of a new discretionary grant program with dedicated funding from the federal-aid highway program for truck parking capital projects,” Spear said.

In a statement, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association concurred.

“For too long, Congress and federal transportation agencies have done very little to address this issue,” said OOIDA President Todd Spencer. “Truckers need more safe places to park, not more studies that do nothing to increase or preserve capacity. This is a critical highway safety issue that deserves dedicated federal funding.”

Regarding what Spear called a “driver shortage,” ATA suggested lowering the minimum age requirement for interstate driving from 21 to 18. OOIDA has long opposed efforts to lower the age for driving a large truck and refers to the claims of a driver shortage as mainly mythical.

“If safety is the top priority when considering a change to a regulation, when it comes to age, the number should be raised, not lowered!” Spencer said. “We also disagree that there is a driver shortage. There is very high turnover, or churn, but no shortage.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., focused his questions on climate change. Markey said climate-related disasters such as fires and floods are costing the United States $300 billion a year. Suggesting this is a reason to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Markey asked Spear about the electrification of trucking fleets. Spear said market forces are already at play and whether or not legislation is needed is open for debate.

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