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February 26, 2020 6:45 PM, EST

Highway Bill Coming in March, Rep. Peter DeFazio Tells AASHTO

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) speaks at AASHTOHouse Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio addresses the AASHTO gathering. (Eugene Mulero/Transport Topics)

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WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats’ version of a bill that would update highway operations around the country will be unveiled in March, the leader of the U.S. House of Representatives’ highway panel indicated Feb. 26.

Following the legislation’s introduction, committee consideration would take place in April, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told reporters after addressing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Congress and the White House must agree on a new highway bill prior to the expiration of the FAST Act highway policy law on Sept. 30. Unresolved matters regarding an account central to highway funding operations have crippled high-level negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House.

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“I’ve given every idea I have. I’ve put them out there. It ain’t up to me,” DeFazio said in reference to his forthcoming bill’s funding mechanism. The Highway Trust Fund account is fed revenue from the federal fuel tax, meaning the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee is tasked with ensuring its solvency. Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) has indicated he would await input about highway funding from the White House.

In reference to the potential of allowing federal highway programs to be managed via short-term measures in lieu of a comprehensive bill by Sept. 30, DeFazio said: “I would hope that we can do a policy and not just an extension.”

Republicans also insist they want a robust highway bill before Sept. 30 to avoid short-term policy measures. Last summer, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a five-year highway bill that lacked a funding source. The Senate’s committee that handles tax policy has not tackled the Highway Trust Fund.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)

Barrasso by Eugene Mulero/Transport Topics

“Together we can repair America’s roads and bridges. Americans need a safe, efficient, reliable transportation system. So the time has come for Congress to pass bipartisan highway legislation,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works panel, told AASHTO prior to DeFazio’s speech to the group.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has yet to pitch a comprehensive highway policy proposal to Congress this year. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told AASHTO President Trump’s plan is under review at the Office of Management and Budget.

CHAMBER RENEWS CALL: Urges Congress to raise fuel taxes

The Highway Trust Fund is projected to approach insolvency in less than two years. The 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax was set in 1993.

“The bottom line is, why don’t we just tell all of the people on the Hill, if you honestly believe that when you put out this proposal and you want to interest your constituents in an election year that you’re going to work on infrastructure, but you have no intention of providing a way to fund it, that’s more phony news, isn’t it,” Tom Donohue, CEO of the Chamber, told reporters Feb. 24.

Other groups either endorse the chamber’s proposal or have issued similar recommendations for policymakers. AASHTO President Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, emphasized, “A long-term transportation bill is needed so that there is no authorization gap upon FAST Act expiration in September 2020. Short-term program extensions cause unnecessary program disruptions and delays safety and mobility benefits to states and communities.”

Besides raising fuel taxes, a group of policymakers have suggested the adoption of a fee on the miles that vehicles travel. Chris Spear, president of American Trucking Associations, rejected any method to impose a vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, fee exclusively on trucks.

“Forcing such a shortsighted program through Congress before it’s ready for prime time would saddle voters with the wasteful costs of yet another big government program that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to,” Spear wrote in an opinion piece in the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune with Sheila Foertsch, managing director of the Wyoming Trucking Association, Feb. 24. “Worst of all, a tracking tax will jeopardize blue-collar trucking jobs across the country and knock the economy off its growth trajectory by hammering the most central and critical link in our nation’s supply chain.”

Last year, Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s team met at the White House to negotiate an infrastructure plan. Amid tensions over the Democrats’ oversight of the administration, the discussions ended abruptly.

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