Commission debated fuel tax increase vs. highway privatization

| 1/14/2008

Trucking officials have a theory about why a federal commission prefers a fuel-tax increase to fund future highway improvements.

It’s as simple as knowing who is on the commission, one official says.

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission is scheduled to publish its recommendations on Tuesday, Jan. 15, leading up to committee hearings in the U.S. House and Senate.

The 12 commissioners with varying backgrounds debated whether to recommend an increase in fuel taxes – the traditional method of maintaining a highway trust fund – or the Bush Administration’s push to privatize and/or toll more highways.

“What it came down to in the debate was whether there should be a federal role in highway and transportation funding or whether there shouldn’t be a federal role,” Mike Joyce, senior government affairs representative with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told “Land Line Now” on XM Satellite Radio.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters chaired the commission.

Joyce said Peters did not have a stacked deck for her pro-privatization stance.

“What we are finding is that the administration was not able to hijack this commission the way that they thought they could and determine what this report was going to say,” Joyce said.

“We have heard that nine commission members sided one way, and there are three members of the commission we hear are going to offer a dissenting minority opinion, essentially on how they feel the report should have been structured,” Joyce said.

The commission majority – those that favored fuel taxes – includes Vice Chairman Jack Schenendorf, a longtime advocate of trucking issues, and Patrick Quinn, co-chairman of U.S. Xpress Enterprises.

On the dissenting side – those favoring privatization – Peters garnered support from former DOT Interim Secretary Maria Cino and another commissioner, according to Joyce.

Even with an apparent majority recommendation set to be published, convincing federal lawmakers to pass a substantial fuel-tax increase will be no easy feat, Joyce says.

“These are just recommendations from a commission and depending on who is in the White House during the next re-authorization of the highway bill (in 2009), this report could become a doorstop. It could sit and wait and never be used, or it could be used,” Joyce said.

“Politically, members of Congress are walking out on the plank with something like that when they go home to their constituents, especially where fuel prices are today.”

The U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is scheduled to conduct a hearing about the report at 11 a.m. Eastern Time, Thursday, Jan. 17.

Video of the hearing is scheduled to be available online at the committee Web site. Click here to view it.

The Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works will tentatively conduct its hearing on Jan. 23. Click here to watch for updates to the committee’s hearing schedule.
– By David Tanner, staff writer