Oberstar suggests fuel tax increase could pay for bridge fund

| 8/10/2007

The chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee says the best way to fund bridge repairs and replacement within the National Highway System is by increasing the federal tax collected on gasoline and diesel.

The chairman, Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, granted an interview to Reed Black of “Land Line Now” on XM Satellite Radio to tell truckers about his plan.

“The Department of Transportation says to fix the structurally and functionally obsolete bridges would be $65 billion,” Oberstar said. “I propose to address the most urgent needs, that is, a smaller category of 6,100 bridges that are truly deficient on the National Highway System including the interstate system.”

The best way to generate the revenue for the fix, he said, is by increasing the federal fuel tax – currently at 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel and 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline.

Although he has not confirmed the exact amount of increase he intends to propose when the Senate session resumes after Labor Day, Oberstar said a 5-cent increase on both gasoline and diesel would generate $25 billion in three years for the most crucial bridge repairs, rehabilitation and replacement.

Oberstar has also discussed the idea of a $1 tax on each barrel of oil at the refinery, including what is imported into the U.S., to generate revenue for the bridge fund.

In addition, Oberstar said he plans to introduce legislation as soon as possible that will contain a prohibition against earmarks by the executive or legislative branches.

“That is, if either the House or the Senate or the U.S. Department of Transportation or the state DOTs deviate from their priority listing, that the whole program will be shut down and no funds will go forward,” he said. “I think that would be a powerful deterrent to any tampering with the fund. We need to make this totally transparent.”

Oberstar’s four-point proposal for a bridge trust fund, released on Wednesday, Aug. 8 – just one week after the deadly collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in his home state of Minnesota – calls for an improvement to the bridge-inspection program and federal funding, and includes a clause preventing diversion of those federal funds.

Oberstar’s plan has been met with some skepticism. Rep. John Mica, R-FL, ranking Republican member of the House T&I Committee, called it a “Band-Aid approach.”

“Apparently, he’d like to see the patient bleed to death rather than apply first aid,” Oberstar fired back on “Land Line Now.”

“I think if you stood at the bridge and saw the crumpled remains of that bridge, the crushed vehicles, trucks that slid down that bridge were cramped in the middle, and that school bus that miraculously escaped, and looked into the eyes of the families that lost their loved ones and others who are missing, you would have a different view.”

President Bush was quoted as being skeptical of Oberstar’s bridge trust fund plan because it included a possible tax increase, but acknowledged that funding was needed.

Oberstar took that as a positive.

“The president, in his radio address, said Congress has to fix its earmark potential and I’ve done that,” Oberstar said. “So I welcome the president’s support for the proposal.”

Oberstar said the next reauthorization of transportation safety laws in 2009 will include further proposals for the nation’s bridges.

– By David Tanner, staff writer