Sen. Barbara Boxer, for many years a key transportation legislator, said she will not seek re-election in 2016.
Boxer has been chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for the past seven years.
The California Democrat provided crucial leadership for passage of the 2012 highway bill that launched substantive reforms at the Department of Transportation.
Boxer pushed for multiyear renewal of the 2012 program when it expired last year, but she and her allies were unable to win agreement on the crucial question of funding. Congress defaulted to a 10-month extension, which expires next May.
Boxer will play an important role in the upcoming debate over the highway program. She will serve the remainder of her term as the ranking Democrat on EPW under the new chairman, James Inhofe, R-Okla. Inhofe was the ranking Republican on the committee during the 2012 highway debate.
While Boxer is a traditional Democratic liberal and Inhofe is a fervent conservative, they have had a good working relationship on transportation. Boxer has described them as Venus and Mars on issues such as environmental regulation, but they agree on the need to reinvest in transportation infrastructure.
Fuel Taxes on the Table?
Inhofe recently said the EPW Committee might consider raising fuel taxes as a way to pay for the next highway program.
He told reporters that nothing is off the table when it comes to highway funding, according to a report in The Hill.
That is far from an endorsement of hiking fuel taxes, but Inhofe also said he views the levy more as a user fee than a tax, a semantic distinction that resonates with those who strictly oppose tax increases.
Talk of raising the fuel tax has been prompted in part by the drop in gasoline prices – down 40% since last June.
“That makes this the perfect time for Congress to overcome its longstanding terror of offending the nation’s motorists and raise the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel,” said the New York Times in an editorial January 11.
Trucking interests, including American Trucking Associations, support infrastructure reinvestment through higher fuel taxes.
Still, any move to fund the next highway program with a fuel tax hike will have to overcome stiff opposition.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says that a highway bill is one of his priorities but he does not expect it to be funded by a fuel tax increase.
Important voices on funding have yet to weigh in. Congressional responsibility for the issue falls on Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who have not said anything official about the approach they will take.