Federal Update
New Congress, fresh debate over taxes and highway funding

By David Tanner, senior editor

The 114th Congress is in session, and with it is a new look at an old debate about long-term funding for transportation infrastructure.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the new chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, made media rounds in January to say that all options must remain on the table, including fuel taxes.

Federal taxes on gasoline and diesel have not increased since 1993. Inflation, higher construction costs, a lull in vehicle miles traveled, and an ever-increasing attention paid to fuel economy have contributed to a declining balance in the Highway Trust Fund.

Congress has transferred billions from general treasury funds to keep the highway account solvent in recent years, but lawmakers are searching for a replacement formula.

U.S. Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., are promoting a bipartisan bill that would increase fuel taxes by 12 cents a gallon over two years. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., has also floated a similar plan spread out over three years, which would also index fuel taxes to inflation in future years.

In 2013, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was taking the all-options approach, but he went on record in December to say a fuel tax increase would be off the table for the House.

The new Congress does not have a lot of time at hand to pass at least a short-term transportation funding bill. An extended version of the MAP-21 highway bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, expires in May.

In January, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the Obama administration will not endorse a fuel tax increase.

Congress and the White House appear to be in agreement on an alternative funding source, and that is closing corporate tax loopholes and using the proceeds for transportation.

U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., outlined the logistics of the tax-reform package during the 113th Congress.

U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., has a bill that would use repatriated funds from offshore corporate tax havens to fund transportation.

Other lawmakers say funding should come from leases on oil and gas drilling. LL