The House of Representatives will begin oversight of the new federal highway program March 14 with a hearing to review implementation of key elements of last year’s highway bill.

Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wisc., chairman of the House Highway and Transit Subcommittee, said Wednesday the hearing will cover how the Department of Transportation is handling the reforms contained in last year’s highway law.

The law, known as MAP 21, requires DOT to streamline the project approval process, consolidate programs, establish performance measures and expand its project loan program.

Petri, speaking to members of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials meeting in Washington, D.C., said he’ll inquire about DOT’s progress in these areas, as well as in creation of a national freight policy.

DOT last week announced it is looking for nominations to a committee to establish a National Freight Strategic Plan as called for in the law. Also at the meeting was Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who urged AASHTO members to submit recommendations for the committee.

Petri supports a strong federal role in transportation. He took issue with those on Capitol Hill who say devolution of funding and policy to the states will improve the national transportation system.

Devolution can promote competition among the states, but it also can lead to a race to the bottom, he said. And it won’t help a state resolve transportation problems caused by issues outside its borders.

His home state, Wisconsin, is in the shadow of the Chicago rail bottleneck, for example, he said. “We need regional and national coordination.”

Finding Revenues

Petri acknowledged that the big transportation issue is funding and said he expects that Congress will eventually figure out how to get the revenues. He believes it will take a variety of sources, from highway user fees to innovative financing, to bridge the gap in the near term.

He noted that past federal fuel tax increases have been implemented in the context of broader economic policy than just transportation funding. The last increase, in 1993, initially went to deficit reduction and later was shifted to the Highway Trust Fund.

In the future Petri foresees the vehicle mile tax playing a larger role.

“Using the gas tax as a proxy for road use worked in 1950 but it won’t work in 2050,” he said.

The technology for VMT is well established and concerns about privacy can be overcome, he said. He is urging trucking interests to take a close look.

“We’ll keep working on it,” he said. 

 

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