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November 24, 2014 2:45 AM, EST

New T&I Top Democrat Optimistic on Road Bill

By Eugene Mulero, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Nov. 24 print edition of Transport Topics.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the new top transportation leader for House Democrats in the next Congress, told Transport Topics last week he is hopeful about Congress’ chances of advancing a long-term highway bill before the current law expires in May.

“If you skate up to the end of May, you’re having a dramatic impact on the coming years’ construction season; and if you adopt another temporary patch, you’re having a huge detrimental impact on larger projects that states might be planning that require multiple years’ expenditures,” DeFazio said. “So I think it will be very detrimental for the economy, not to mention our infrastructure, if we don’t have a long-term bill in place before that deadline.”

As expected, House Democrats formally named DeFazio the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s ranking member on Nov. 19. He will succeed Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who was defeated in the midterm elections.

DeFazio, currently the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, was re-elected to a 15th term.

DeFazio said his longtime working relationship with Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the transportation committee’s chairman, will help the panel advance major transportation bills in the 114th Congress, which begins in January.

Also on Nov. 19, the House Republican Conference selected Shuster to serve again as chairman of the transportation committee.

“For the most part, when it comes to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure — roads, bridges, highways, transit systems, water systems, sewer systems, anything that we have jurisdiction over — the chairman wants to make improvements, as do I,” DeFazio said. “So I think we can work together very well.”

Even though congressional aides have begun drafting provisions for a surface transportation reauthorization, DeFazio expects the transportation committee to kick off its agenda with a reauthorization of Federal Aviation Administration programs.

If the FAA bill is considered first, transportation experts say Congress will have less time for passing a long-term highway bill, increasing the likelihood that lawmakers will opt for a short-term funding patch in the spring.

Congress has consistently extended highway funding authority in recent years because lawmakers have been unable to agree on a sustainable funding source for the Highway Trust Fund, an account used by the U.S. Department of Transportation to help states pay for infrastructure.

Several trucking and freight companies along with their representatives, including American Trucking Associations, support a move to raise the federal tax on gas and diesel to provide the trust fund with multiyear support.

The current federal tax on diesel is 24.4 cents per gallon, and for gasoline it is 18.4 cents.

DeFazio has proposed a plan, which consists of replacing the per-gallon gas tax with a tax on oil barrels as they enter refineries. Republican leaders who control the House have not indicated whether they would schedule a debate on DeFazio’s bill. There also has not been strong support on Capitol Hill for raising fuel taxes.

MAP-21, a 2012 highway funding law, was set to expire in September, but Congress voted to extend its authority through May 31 by transferring nearly $11 billion to the trust fund through a budgetary adjustment commonly referred to as “pension smoothing.” That accounting technique allows companies to reduce required contributions to their retirement plans as a way of inflating their taxable income temporarily.