House Transportation Subcommittee Mulls Ways to Fix Highway Trust Fund

Rep. Bill Shuster
Shuster delivers the opening statement at the Highways and Transit Subcommittee hearing. (Chairman Bill Shuster via YouTube)

WASHINGTON — Members of a House transportation subcommittee seem largely in agreement that the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and near-insolvent Highway Trust Fund are in desperate need of fixes — and quickly.

However, at a March 7 hearing, they agreed less on what long-term funding mechanisms should be used to make the financial, and road and bridge repairs.

“Long-term certainty and stability in infrastructure funding is critical for our states,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the Transportation Committee chairman. “Without it, our states, our economy and the American people face the consequences. Highway and transit projects get delayed, project costs go up, and our people and businesses continue to suffer the impacts of congestion and inefficiency.”

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, agreed.

“Beginning as early as the spring of 2020, states may have to halt construction of surface transportation projects because, once again, the Highway Trust Fund will not be able to meet its obligations,” Graves said. “There are many reasons for this – motor fuel taxes have not been raised in 25 years, fuel-economy standards have increased, not all users pay into the Trust Fund.”

“It’s time to stop talking and do something,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. “This is getting absolutely absurd.”

He added, “If the president supports the gas tax, I will stand next to the president.”

At the hearing, members of the subcommittee looked for potential solutions from a panel consisting of state transportation officials, the head of American Trucking Associations, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive and the head of an economic think tank.

Ed Mortimer, the chamber’s executive director for transportation infrastructure, said his organization supports increasing the federal fuel user fee by 25 cents for surface transportation projects, recommends using a multifaceted approach for leveraging more public and private resources, and streamlining the permitting process at the federal, state and local levels.

“The bottom line is that the time to make important infrastructure investments is now,” Mortimer told the subcommittee.

ATA President Chris Spear, said the federation’s proposal, the Build America Fund, is the most immediate, efficient and conservative way to tackle the infrastructure problem.

“We’re proposing a 20-cent fee on fuel at the wholesale terminal rack, 5 cents per year for four years,” Spear told the subcommittee. “Unlike tolls or mileage fees, it’s extremely inexpensive to collect.”

He said doing nothing costs drivers 15 times more than they would pay under ATA’s proposal.

“Borrowing money from China just passes the buck to future generations, with interest. Some states, in desperation, are resorting to tolls,” Spear said. “…Then there’s the idea of selling off public infrastructure to the highest bidder, leaving the people who rely on those facilities holding the bag decades after the money gained is spent.”

John Schroer, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said that states have a critical need for direct funding, not just grants, from the federal government just to support current investment levels.

“I still firmly continue to believe that the best way to fund the nation’s crumbling infrastructure is through sustainable formula-based funding,” Schroer said. “The Highway Trust Fund has provided stable, reliable and substantial highway and transit funding for decades since its inception since 1956.”

Colorado Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis said that last year his state conducted a four-month pilot project to test a vehicle-miles-traveled system that he said could be an answer in 10 years or so as the basis for a user fee.