Senate panel weighs in on funding as transportation bill nears

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 5/6/2014

As one Senate committee prepares to release its portion of the next highway bill perhaps as early as this week, another committee is taking steps to find the funding for it. The Senate Finance Committee met Tuesday, May 6, to discuss funding mechanisms for roads, bridges and transit in the future.

Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said it will be cheaper to fund road projects now, with low interest rates, than to wait around until rates increase.

“It’s important not to punt investments further into the future,” Wydon said in opening remarks. “Maintaining a good-quality road is cheaper than rebuilding a failing one – especially while interest rates are low – and it’s tougher to invest in new transportation projects if the country’s roads and highways are falling into disrepair. The price tag for a strong national infrastructure will only grow in the future, so it’s time to get to work.”

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, said he would like to preserve the user-pay system that the U.S. uses to pay for infrastructure, but explore ways to save money.

“Since its inception in the 1950s, the Highway Trust Fund has been called upon to fund an increasingly broad scope of activities, such as bike paths and other so-called ‘enhancements,’ Hatch stated. “Additionally, there are many requirements and regulations that increase the costs of federal highway projects. So, if we’re going to talk about revenues, we should talk about reforms that will address costs and outlays as well.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was a guest panelist for the hearing. She chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. She said her committee has reached an agreement in principal for its portion of the highway bill – the infrastructure part – and could have a draft on the table early as Thursday of this week.

Boxer said her committee has discussed replacing the cents-per-gallon gas tax with a sales tax on the wholesale price of gasoline and diesel, as Virginia has recently done at the state level.

With the White House releasing its proposal for a highway bill last week, and a Senate EPW draft proposal on the way, it’s important to note that these are just drafts at this point and that the House of Representatives has not yet released its version.

OOIDA continues to monitor highway bill activity in congressional committees.

OOIDA Director of Government Affairs Ryan Bowley says the committees are battling a war on two fronts – the short-term stability of the Highway Trust Fund, and the long-term way to pay for transportation for the next four- to six years.

“The trust fund is going to be running on fumes this summer during the busy construction season,” Bowley said.
“A lot of the commentary continues to be focused on the need to address that issue, something that small-business truckers already know and recognize. The challenge is that it hasn’t sunk in with some lawmakers yet is that it’s a real issue.”

Bowley said the looming elections in November will surely affect the process of getting a highway bill done.

“The pressure to avoid doing something drastic and the pressure to do something are both a reality at this stage,” Bowley said. “The fear of not doing something and the fear of what might happen if they do something are both very much out there for rank-and-file lawmakers. Those are issues that transportation leaders in the House and Senate are going to have to navigate as we get into the weeks leading up to the August recess.”

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