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May 23, 2016 3:45 AM, EDT
Lawmakers Already Preparing for Future Road Funding Fights
Office of Rep. Sam Graves

This story appears in the May 23 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — Senior congressional lawmakers said they would push to come up with a long-term funding system for infrastructure projects during the next few years.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said his colleagues will need to consider ways other than raising taxes on fuel to fund infrastructure projects.

At an Infrastructure Week event on Capitol Hill last week, Graves added he will reach out to colleagues on the tax-writing Ways and Means panel to ask them to include transportation programs in whatever tax reform package they stitch together in the coming years. Ways and Means oversees the account that funds highway programs.

“We’ve got to look at some options, and everything’s on the table,” Graves said May 16 at an event hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“The gas tax is a repressive way of doing this because we got cars on the road that are much more efficient than they were years before, and then we also have cars that simply aren’t paying any gas tax — alternative-fuel cars,” he explained.

Alternatives to raising federal fuel taxes — from 24.4 cents on diesel and 18.4 cents on gasoline — would include expanding tolling on highways, a tax on tires and relying on a vehicle miles traveled fee, Graves said. Coming up with a sustainable funding fix for transportation is crucial because the five-year FAST Act highway law enacted in December fell short of achieving a long-term funding fix for infrastructure.

The $305 billion highway law deviates from relying on money from fuel taxes and is backed instead by intricate budget transfers unrelated to transportation, such as liquidating a portion of the Federal Reserve surplus and selling units from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. “A lot of it doesn’t have anything to do with transportation,” Graves said.

Congress opted not to raise taxes on diesel and gasoline to back the FAST Act’s programs despite calls to do so from transportation stakeholders such as the trucking industry. Advances in fuel efficiency and a rejection of traditional driving habits by millennials contributed to the transportation funding shortfall.

Graves was among several current and former lawmakers to emphasize a need for arriving at a way to address the looming transportation funding shortfall during Infrastructure Week, which kicked off May 16.

At an event hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Sens. Shelley Capito (R-W.Va.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) reassured stakeholders they would press colleagues in the Senate to address infrastructure funding.

At another event, hosted by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) noted that when states see a long-term commitment of federal dollars for infrastructure, state and local governments will realize economic growth.

“If you have the right spending criteria, decision criteria, in place, you actually save money or generate economic activity by making the right investments,” he said.

While funding large-scale infrastructure projects had garnered bipartisan support for many decades, a bloc of conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill has pushed back on funding such projects in recent years.

At the Association of Equipment Manufacturers event, Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James offered a municipal perspective.

“As one of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s ‘Smart Cities’ finalists, we’ve sought in Kansas City to adopt a forward-looking approach to our infrastructure,” said James, who lamented that there are policymakers who rank infrastructure needs last on their list of priorities.

DOT pledged up to $40 million to a city that adopts innovative technologies, such as self-driving cars, connected vehicles and smart sensors, in their transportation grid.