Lawmakers Pitch Transport Funding Ideas, From VMT to Freight Taxes

Leaders of the House transportation committee, doggedly pursuing a six-year, $450 billion infrastructure bill this year, pressed their case this morning before Ways and Means Committee colleagues who must approve a new funding mechanism for their massive legislation.

1025_charles_rangel.jpgOn transport funding, a question looms: Whither Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY)? (Photo: BusinessWeek)

"We should have indexed a long time ago the highway user fee" — also known as the gas tax — transportation panel chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) told the Ways and Means revenue panel. "But that got lost in the process."

Oberstar asked Ways and Means members to okay a $3 billion patch for the highway trust fund, which is expected to run dry next month.

That course would postpone until September the House’s transportation-funding battle with the White House and the Senate, where 18 months of stopgap funding is almost certain to be approved within two weeks.

Ways and Means has dedicated most of its time and energy to health care reform this summer, leading to widespread speculation that transportation would fall by the wayside. But Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), chairman of Ways and Means’ revenue panel, told Oberstar that he was on the transportation committee’s side.

"I share your position that we should go forward" with a bill this year, Neal told Oberstar.

Yet the chairman of the full Ways and Means committee, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), has yet to throw his weight behind Oberstar’s goals. Without Rangel’s muscle, the thorny question of how to pay for a new transportation bill would be almost impossible to resolve by the end of September.

Despite the uncertainty over revenue, one conclusion was endorsed by liberals and conservatives alike: the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon "is basically dead," in the words of the transport committee’s senior Republican, John Mica (FL).

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who proposed legislation today that would set up nationwide pilot programs on a future vehile miles traveled (VMT) tax, echoed that sentiment.

"We don’t have enough money to even fund our current inadequate transportation system," Blumenauer said. "The highway trust fund is in a death spiral."

Mica suggested replacing the cents-per-gallon gas tax with a flat sales tax on gas purchases, while Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) proposed forcing Congress to act by timing the highway trust fund to expire outright in 30 months.

Several other lawmakers looked to freight rail to pay for and expand transportation capacity.

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL) touted his bill to provide tax credits for companies that build new freight tracks or terminals. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) suggested levying a freight fee of 0.075 percent per shipment, with a maximum of $500, on goods that arrive at the nation’s ports.

"You can’t find a greener transportation mode than rail," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), another freight fan.

The testimony from transportation committee members gave today’s hearing a palpable sense of urgency, but that may not be enough to surmount opposition from the Obama administration and the upper chamber of Congress.

With the House set to depart next week for a month-long recess, the clock is running out — and a decision is imminent on whether to pass Oberstar’s $3 billion patch or move closer to the Senate’s $26.8 billion highway trust fund rescue.