U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

As Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., sees it, the idea of a fuel tax increase to restore the Highway Trust Fund is not out of the question.

Carper’s message to his colleagues in the Senate is to look at a wide range of ideas to save the Fund, but among them consider restoring the purchasing power of the fuel tax.

The 18.4-cent tax on gasoline generates just 10 cents of purchasing power compared to what it generated in 1993, when it was last adjusted, Carper said.

He is suggesting to fellow Senators that they raise the tax 3 or 4 cents a year over four years, and then index it to inflation.

“They didn’t throw me out of the meeting,” Carper said.

Carper, speaking Tuesday at an infrastructure session at American Trucking Associations’ offices on Capitol Hill, characterized the Highway Trust Fund debate as a moral issue.

“When we have problems we shouldn’t just pretend like we don’t,” he said. “Figure out right thing and do it. There is a right thing to do here. It’s not the easy thing or the expedient thing but it is the right thing to do.”

He said that six months ago this approach went nowhere on Capitol Hill, but now when he talks to his Republican colleagues he’s starting to get a little better reaction.

“I’m not going to give up,” he said as he asked the audience of trucking and other transportation interests to continue pressing for legislation to pay for, not just finance, the Fund.

A fuel tax hike will not solve the whole problem, he said. Other possibilities include tolling, a vehicle mile tax, infrastructure banks and the one-time infusions from corporate tax reform that both President Obama and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., have suggested.

“There is no silver bullet but there may be a number of silver BBs,” he said.

ATA has long held that a fuel tax hike is the best way to restore the Fund but now is looking at possible supplements to that approach.

A committee of ATA members has been considering other funding options and will meet again next week.

“The goal is to broaden our horizons in case raising and indexing the fuel tax doesn’t work, so we’ll have some other things that we can support,” said Pat Thomas, vice president at UPS, a member of the committee.

Committee members on hand did not discuss the funding mechanisms they have assessed, but Phil Byrd, president and CEO of Bulldog Hiway Express and chairman of ATA, said that none of them are as good as raising and indexing the fuel tax.

The highway proposals now on the table – the Obama administration’s bill and the measure posted this week by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – got mixed reviews.

ATA President and CEO Bill Graves said Obama deserves credit for talking about the need to reinvest in infrastructure but noted trucking’s dissatisfaction with the administration’s proposal to allow tolling on Interstates. And he said he has doubts about the administration's idea of using corporate tax reform to generate a one-time infusion of money into the Highway Trust Fund.

He said that while ATA still is reviewing the Senate bill he likes what he sees at first glance.

Graves does not think Congress will finish work on the bill before the current program expires at the end of September, or before the November mid-term elections.

He’s predicting a 6-year bill wrapped up next Spring, although he does not know how the money will be raised.