May 16, 2011 6:45 AM, EDT

White House Won’t Back VMT to Raise Road Funds, DOT Says

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the May 16 print edition of Transport Topics.

The Obama administration last week officially distanced itself from any talk of instituting a national tax based on the number of miles vehicles travel, saying it is not considering such a levy on American drivers.

A White House draft of a transportation reauthorization bill, leaked last month, called for creation of an office within the Federal Highway Administration to study a vehicle-miles-driven tax, or a VMT tax.

“This is not a bill supported by the administration. . . . We have not floated this proposal and have no plans to float this proposal,” the U.S. Department of Transportation said in a statement released May 11 and furnished by spokeswoman Olivia Alair.

Written in bill form, the document was leaked to several news organizations.

“This was an early working draft proposal that was never formally circulated within the administration, does not take into account the advice of the president’s senior advisers, economic team or Cabinet officials, and does not represent the views of the president,” DOT said.

In February, Obama discussed elements of a $560 billion plan to reauthorize transportation spending but said he would leave it up to Congress to find a funding source for his extensive wish list, which included more spending for highways and passenger rail.

The government’s basic transportation law — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, or “SAFETEA-LU” — expired in September 2009. Congress has had to pass short-term funding measures to keep the transportation system solvent since then.

Since Obama unveiled his plan, DOT and White House staff members have been meeting with congressional leaders in an effort to draft reauthorization legislation that will satisfy the diverse interests in the Republican-controlled House and in the Democratic-led Senate.

In the House, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation Committee, is drafting a highway reauthorization bill he said is for six years and would keep spending in line with revenue that flows into the Highway Trust Fund from federal fuel taxes.

On the Senate side, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, is working on a reauthorization bill with the committee’s ranking minority member, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla).

“Very significant progress has been made, and the committee is still on track to move a bill forward this spring,” said a committee spokesman who declined to be identified.

Boxer and Inhofe have not said, however, whether they will introduce a six-year bill nor what funding mechanisms it would contain. Committee staff members on Capitol Hill also have declined to talk, saying reauthorization negotiations are especially sensitive now.

Boxer met May 12 with American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves to discuss reauthorization, but participants would not discuss details of the meeting.

ATA is opposed to a vehicle-miles-traveled tax, preferring instead to rely on increased fuel taxes to fund transportation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also is on record as favoring an increase in fuel taxes to pay for transportation needs.

Meanwhile, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has said transportation needs are so great that it would support several new funding options, including higher fuel taxes and a VMT tax.

Despite public opposition to a VMT tax from the White House and members of Congress, some transportation experts say a miles tax is the logical alternative to fuel taxes that have not kept pace with transportation needs as cars and trucks have become more fuel-efficient and as drivers turn to alternative power sources such as electricity.

“We have to invest more in our transportation network if we’re going to be able to compete in the 21st century,” said Jack

Schenendorf, who was vice chairman of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which recommended higher fuel taxes until the government can shift to a VMT tax.

“And so the question is — where are those revenues coming from and the users — the system that we have been using in the last 50, 60 years where the users of the system are paying for it makes a lot of sense,” Schenendorf said. Congress created the panel in the SAFETEA-LU legislation.

“We need to continue that, but I just don’t think that the motor fuel tax in the long run is going to be a good source,” he said.