There is a general recognition on Capitol Hill that Congress is going to have to come up with dedicated money, as opposed to financing or general funds, for the next highway program in October 2014.
“The existing approach (to highway funding) is basically broken,” said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wisc., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
“We cannot really do a robust bill unless we have the funding to accomplish that,” he said yesterday to transportation officials gathered at the annual meeting of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors.
The coalition lobbies Congress on behalf of state transportation departments, ports and metro planning organizations, among other groups. It was instrumental in shaping freight provisions in the current highway program.
Petri was echoing a message that’s coming from both sides of the aisle in Congress as committee leaders prepare to start drafting a new highway bill.
So far, the message of need has not been accompanied by mention of a specific solution, however. For political safety, the byword is that all options for fundraising are on the table.
But yesterday’s session offered a new nuance.
Alex Herrgott is legislative director for Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who was the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during drafting of the current highway law.
Herrgott said that the current highway law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, is the best that Congress could do at the time, and that it is essentially a Republican measure because it “re-identifies” the highway program.
The law requires the Department of Transportation to make significant reforms, such as streamlining programs, improving accountability and speeding up highway projects.
“Republicans own the bill because the streamlining re-identified it (so the highway program) is no longer this bloated piece of federal machinery,” Herrgott said.
“Now people are starting to think about the program having accountability, instructed by need and not by politics – something conservatives can stand behind.”
But, he continued, Republicans have boxed themselves in with regard to funding.
At one point during the debate over MAP-21 some Republicans pushed to cut the program by 35% by bringing it down to the level of funding in the Highway Trust Fund.
To repeat such a maneuver in 2014 for the next highway bill would mean a cut of 70% because the Fund still would have to honor all the obligations from prior years, and that’s more of a cut than Republicans will do, he said.
“But (Republicans) also are on record saying we don’t want a gas tax increase and we can’t find additional revenues.”
Herrgott said conservative groups tell him that if Republicans push even for a 5-cent increase in the gas tax, which is less than half of what’s needed to keep the Highway Trust Fund whole, they will lose five or six seats in the Senate and about 50 in the House.
“We’ve got serious problems,” he said. “The emperor is not wearing any clothes.”
He foresees that the solution will come at the last moment.
“As we approach the end of the bill (in 2014) the adults will get in a room,” he said.
“It won’t be elegant. People are boxed in. Hill decisions are not made over a period of time. They evolve. You build a narrative, and (decisions) are made quickly after the narrative has been built – in about six hours at two in the morning.”
That’s one view, anyway. The more common view was voiced by Jim Kolb, minority staff director of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, who holds that all options really are on the table.
“The reality is that we can’t even do an extension (of the highway program) if we don’t find some revenue to put in the trust fund,” he said. “Luckily, there’s a conversation going on about a grand bargain (on spending and revenues).”
The last three times Congress raised fuel taxes, the deal was struck outside the context of a highway bill, he said.