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September 23, 2008 8:00 AM, EDT
Congress May Link Change in Truck Size to Vehicle Miles Tax, DeFazio Says

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Sept. 22 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

WASHINGTON — Congress may link any change in truck size- and-weight limits in upcoming highway legislation to a new commercial vehicle-miles-traveled tax, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Highway and Transit Subcommittee, said last week.

“I’m very interested in a vehicle-mileage fee,” DeFazio said Sept. 16 at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association’s annual “Public-Private Ventures in Transportation” meeting. “I just don’t see it moving very quickly with passenger vehicles in the next reauthorization, but we may be able to move a little bit more quickly with commercials.”

DeFazio said there were fewer issues, such as privacy and technological upgrades, with imposing a mileage fee on large trucks than on passenger cars and that would make the conversion simpler.

“There’s issues with individual autos. There are huge privacy issues that need to be dealt with and there’s the magnitude with what we’re dealing with,” he said.

“Commercial trucks are a finite resource. They’re already monitored and regulated very heavily. There are no privacy issues and many of the larger firms in any case have [Global Positioning System] devices and they are tracked already anyway. I think you could move there a lot more quickly than you could with cars,” he said.

Asked whether he would press such a shift in the next highway bill, due to be written next year, DeFazio said Congress would “be having discussions,” and indicated the move might have to be tied to increasing truck sizes and weights.

“If the trade-off is, we’re going to move in this direction with this new technology and fee system but, in return, we’re going to get some concessions in terms of weight and length and you’re going to get some new investments in terms of separated roadways,” he said, “I think it would certainly help facilitate the discussion.”

DeFazio added that he thought recent policy positions taken by industry groups in favor of a fuel-tax increase might make the idea of a shift appealing to trucking.

“I think that if the industry is reaching the point where they are advocating for fuel-tax increases —  at least parts of the industry are —  I think they, too, might be interested in that if they saw a very real benefit coming from that and if there was a trade-off between heavier and longer and a different way of assessing a tax, so long as there wasn’t a disproportionate increase in tax on the industry,” he said.

Beyond the issue of truck fees and size-and-weight issues, DeFazio said there were other challenges in writing the next highway bill, mainly how to pay for it.

DeFazio said committee Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, estimates the bill could be $450 billion. “I’d love to get to 450,” DeFazio said. “I just don’t know how we get there.”

While he praised the work of the national commission that recommended a 25-cent to 40-cent in-crease in the gas tax, he said that size of an increase was unlikely.

“We’re not going to increase the gas tax, even in a phased way, 40 cents,” he said. “Chairman Oberstar leads with his chin when talking about raising the gas tax; I don’t go there.”

In order to find additional money for highway investment, DeFazio suggested the bill could include some bonding and “elements of public-private partnerships.”

DeFazio and other Democrats on the transportation committee have taken a dim view of public-private partnerships, particularly of the long-term road leases that occurred in Indiana and Chicago in recent years.

However, DeFazio said he was “hopeful of putting some guidance in the next transportation bill,” to ensure that future partnerships protect the public interest.

DeFazio also said he could “justify borrowing money to fund our transportation infrastructure, particularly given the fact that our economy is imploding.”

“We really need to make more concrete investments in our economic future,” he said. He said infrastructure spending should be an important part of any economic recovery package.

DeFazio also defended the controversial practice of congressional earmarks, or projects requested by members of Congress.

“We’re not going to get a major transportation reauthorization unless members can go home and talk about some of it,” he said. “You’re going to go home and say: ‘We just raised your taxes and, by the way, you’re going to get good government out of it. And the bureaucrats will figure where to spend that money on transportation.’ That’s not going to happen.”

“Congress isn’t going to vote for a penny increase, if they can’t talk about the projects that they brought home,” DeFazio added.

The current highway bill runs through the Sept. 30, 2009.