Senate committee prefers short-term transportation fix

| 6/25/2009

A U.S. Senate committee is throwing support behind a White House plan to forgo sweeping transportation reform this year in favor of an 18-month extension of the current system.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee praised Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the White House for suggesting a short-term fix to shore up the Highway Trust Fund.

The hearing on Thursday, June 25, was just one day after the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit called the White House plan unacceptable. House lawmakers want to pass a six-year, $500 billion authorization bill that would overhaul the U.S. Department of Transportation and set a new course for highways and infrastructure.

“I don’t feel comfortable bringing the bill forward until I know how I’m going to recommend paying for it,” Senate EPW Chair Barbara Boxer, D-CA, said Thursday.

LaHood stated at the hearing that time was short and that the trust fund would be broke in August.

Boxer said most of her committee, including Republicans – with the exception of Sen. George Voinovich, R-OH – favored LaHood’s proposal to inject $20 billion into the Highway Trust Fund and buy Congress time until 2011 to pass large-scale reform.

Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, introduced a bill urging the use of leftover stimulus funds to shore up the highway fund.

Just as it appeared the committee had consented to a short-term solution, Voinovich fired back urging the committee members to move a long-term highway bill forward.

“The way to get the job done is to pass a bill now. Urgent. Get it done,” Voinovich said.

“Can you imagine what that will mean in terms of our economy and giving some people confidence in where we’re going? Is anybody listening when you’ve got every group in this country that says we want this done now, we need it?”

Boxer said long-term solutions will become a priority for the committee once the Highway Trust Fund is shored up in the short term.

“This is a question of immediacy versus a long-term solution,” she said. “That long-term solution is going to come.”

Kathy Ruffalo, a member of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, informed the committee during her testimony that a slump in sales of new heavy trucks, trailers and tires contributed greatly to the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.

“Right now the decrease in the truck-trailer sales tax and tire tax is about $2.5 billion … so if you look at the gap we’re facing, that’s one of the sizable reasons why we’re seeing (a shortfall) in ’09,” Ruffalo said.

Boxer said she wasn’t aware that truck and trailer sales had such an effect on the shortfall. The trust fund shortfall is chiefly attributed to a decrease in miles traveled and fuel consumption.

Later in the hearing, Boxer credited truckers as a group for their willingness to pay for a good transportation system even if it means increasing taxes.

Back on the House side, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, suggested Thursday that Congress create a new tax on the speculative oil market and apply it to the Highway Trust Fund as a way to pay for a six-year authorization bill.

DeFazio and other Democratic members of the House T&I Committee sent a letter Thursday urging President Obama to give up on the idea of an 18-month extension of existing transportation programs in favor of a complete transportation overhaul.

– By David Tanner, staff writer