House committees battle Senate on transportation

| 7/23/2009

Members of Congress are drumming up support for their proposed $450 billion transportation overhaul, but most of it is in the House.

Three Senate committees, meanwhile, favor a different plan that would extend the current transportation authorization by 18 months.

On Thursday, July 23, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures under Chairman Richard Neal, D-MA, threw its support behind a six-year, $450 billion transportation authorization bill authored by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The Ways and Means Committee continues to work on finding funding for the proposal making its way through House circles.

The top Democrats and Republicans from the T&I Committee presented ideas to Neal’s subcommittee on Thursday, ranging from taxes on oil speculators to increasing user fees, including the Heavy Vehicle Use Tax on trucks.

T&I Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-MN, along with Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR; Rep. John Mica, R-FL; and Rep. John J. Duncan, R-TN, say Congress should pass the six-year plan as soon as possible.

They said their bill would provide $337.4 billion for highways. Of that, $100 billion would specifically be used for critical bridges. The T&I bill would provide $99.8 billion for public transit and double highway and motor-carrier safety programs to $12.6 billion.

The Highway Trust Fund, supplied mainly by fuel taxes and the 12 percent excise tax on new trucks and equipment, does not buy as much as it used to because of increasing construction costs, a decline in truck sales, changes in driver habits and the fact that fuel taxes haven’t increased since 1993.

As the discussion continues, the Highway Trust Fund faces a declining balance that will soon be in the negative.

Oberstar suggested that Ways and Means approve a $3 billion transfer from general funds to the highway account while long-term solutions are debated. He remains confident that a six-year bill can be done in September by the time the current authorization known as SAFETEA-LU expires.

Three Senate committees with jurisdiction over transportation matters have formed an alliance to support the White House’s plan to extend SAFETEA-LU by 18 months to buy time for a long-term bill to be passed.

The House and Senate proposals continue to take their respective paths, and ideas for funding are beginning to take shape.

DeFazio came forward with a plan to tax oil speculators to raise $190 billion for the six-year House plan. Oberstar and DeFazio also said the U.S. Treasury should float $60 billion in bonds for transportation projects.

There is talk of doubling the Heavy Vehicle Use Tax from $550 per truck to $1,100 per truck to “retain the purchasing power of the tax” as suggested by one of two federal commissions tapped to recommend solutions to Congress.

Those federal commissions also favor the concept of a federal infrastructure bank that would loan money at low interest for transportation.

But the Senate is holding firm on plans to delay a long-term overhaul of transportation programs with a SAFETEA-LU extension.

The T&I and full Ways and Means Committee will have the ball in their court again before the August recess.

– By David Tanner, staff writer