LaHood wants all funding options on the table except fuel tax

| 3/26/2009

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he wants all options for funding transportation on the table for discussion … except increasing the fuel tax.

In reaction, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association continues to say that the federal fuel tax remains the easiest and fairest way to pay for transportation infrastructure and programs.

During a hearing Wednesday, March 25, members of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asked LaHood to state for the record where the Obama administration stands on issues of transportation funding.

“I can tell you that there is a very, very strong commitment from President Obama to put everything on the table, to throw out all the ideas that we can throw out and see which ones stick, which ones make sense. And I am committed as a part of his team and a part of his Cabinet to work with you,” LaHood said.

But later in the hearing, LaHood told Sen. George Voinovich, R-OH, that the administration was not in favor of raising fuel taxes.

“This administration, in these hard economic times, with so many people out of work, can ill afford to tell people we’re going to raise the gasoline tax. That’s off the table for now, Senator,” LaHood said.

Voinovich pressed the issue by asking the administration to “level with the American people.”

“It’s going to take a gas tax, and it’s going to take public-private partnerships, and it’s going to take a whole lot of other stuff to get the job done,” Voinovich said.

The last time the federal fuel tax was raised was in 1993. Per-gallon taxes are currently 18.4 cents for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel.

LaHood is instead promoting other options, which include congestion pricing, tolling and public-private partnerships along with increases to various user fees and the possibility of a new tax on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, the committee chairwoman, entered the discussion to point out LaHood’s contradiction.

“Before, you said everything was on the table – and now you said the gas tax is not on the table,” she said.

“All I want to say is that I am averse to raising the gas tax, but I’ve not signed a pledge, and that means I’m willing to see what we’ve got to do,” Boxer added.

Congressional leaders are in the process of drafting the next long-term transportation funding authorization bill to replace SAFETEA-LU when it expires in September.

Tolling and congestion pricing are often discussed, as is a VMT tax.

Voinovich and others want fuel-tax rates adjusted, at the very least to keep up with inflation.

Highway users who want to be part of the discussion of highway funding should contact their lawmakers if they haven’t already done so, said OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce

“Congress is struggling with finding ways to pay for the next authorization bill and in general to fund our highways and our infrastructure,” Joyce told Land Line.

“The only way to not be severely impacted by this bill is for our members to get involved. If we’re going to curtail the improper use of tolling, if we’re going to minimize the impact of a vehicle-miles tax, our members need to pick up the phone and make the calls to their elected officials to express their concerns on all of these issues.”

Truckers have been vocal on issues of tolling and asset privatization for a number of years.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told the Senate committee that Congress should allow existing interstate highways to be tolled and toll roads to be leased to the private sector.

Rendell has so far been unsuccessful in efforts to toll Interstate 80 and/or lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to investors.

Truckers fought those proposals because they don’t want their highways turned into cash cows.

One thing OOIDA and Rendell can agree upon is that implementing a federal VMT tax without doing more research and planning would be premature.

OOIDA officials are not necessarily opposed to an eventual shift to a VMT tax, but say the shift should not occur in the pending authorization bill.

“While the idea of a VMT tax has caught the imagination of some, this kind of a switch is far from a straight line,” said OOIDA Executive VP Todd Spencer. “Tracking mileage means tracking people too. The level of monitoring required with this change raises privacy issues that should be fully fleshed out before proceeding. We are a long way from that happening.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer