Se­nate shifts into gear to pass a ‘high­way’ bill

Ac­tion puts pres­sure on the House

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics - BY SEAN LENGELL

The Se­nate eas­ily passed a trans­porta­tion bill Wed­nes­day that breaks prece­dent by not re­ly­ing solely on fed­eral gas taxes to foot the bill for high­way, in­fra­struc­ture and public-tran­sit projects na­tion­wide.

The ac­tion puts in­creased pres­sure on the House to pass its own stalled “high­way bill” be­fore the gov­ern­ment’s au­thor­ity to col­lect fed­eral gaso­line and diesel taxes ex­pires at the end of the month.

The $109 bil­lion Se­nate bill, crafted in a rare bi­par­ti­san ef­fort and passed by a vote of 74 -22, would in­crease the amount of money avail­able for states by rais­ing cur­rent spend­ing lev­els to take into ac­count in­fla­tion over the past sev­eral years.

“When it comes to in­fra­struc­ture, we un­der­stand that pres­i­dents, Re­pub­li­can and Democrats, have al­ways said that you just can’t have a thriv­ing econ­omy if you can’t move goods, you can’t move peo­ple and you can’t do it ef­fi­ciently,” said Sen. Bar­bara Boxer, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat who co-wrote the bill.

“When it gets down to some­thing we re­ally need to do, we’ll get it done, and we did,” said the bill’s other au­thor, Sen. James M. In­hofe, Ok­la­homa Re­pub­li­can.

The Se­nate plan would mostly close a $13 bil­lion gap be­tween trans­porta­tion costs and the gas-tax funded High­way Trust Fund, which tra­di­tion­ally pays for fed­eral trans­porta­tion projects. But in or­der to make up the dif­fer­ence, the mea­sure calls for spend­ing cuts else­where in the bud­get and an al­most $5 bil­lion trans­fer from the gen­eral fund over the next two years.

Congress al­ready has trans­ferred $35 bil­lion from gen­eral fed­eral rev­enue to pay for high­way spend­ing that ex­ceeded trust fund rev­enue since 2008, adding to the gov­ern­ment’s deficit. But the Se­nate mea­sure is the first trans­porta­tion bill that ex­plic­itly calls for such a prac­tice — a move crit­ics say is fis­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble and goes against the 1956 law that set up the trust fund.

“This bill proves that the bi­par­ti­san ad­dic­tion to big spend­ing in Washington hasn’t ended,” said Sen. Jim Demint, South Carolina Re­pub­li­can. “This bill re­quires a $13 bil­lion bailout be­cause sen­a­tors in both par­ties in­sisted on reck­less spend­ing in­creases far above what is avail­able in the high­way trust fund.”

The largest sources of money for the trust fund are fed­eral taxes of 18.4 cents per gal­lon for gaso­line and 24.4 cents per gal­lon for diesel fuel. Rev­enue from those taxes has de­clined in re­cent years be­cause of in­creased ve­hi­cle fuel ef­fi­ciency and be­cause Amer­i­cans are driv­ing less.

Com­pound­ing the trust money crunch are in­creased high­way con­struc­tion costs and a gas-tax rate that has re­mained the same since the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Scott Lilly, a trans­porta­tion pol­icy ex­pert with the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, a lib­er­al­lean­ing Washington think tank, said the cur­rent gas-tax sys­tem isn’t an ef­fec­tive or sus­tain­able way to solely fund na­tional trans­porta­tion needs.

“The 18.4 cents we pay in high­way tax is worth about 30 per­cent less to­day than when the tax was im­posed in 1997, and cars to­day get about 18 per­cent more mileage than they did in 1997,” Mr. Lilly said. “You put those two things to­gether and ve­hi­cles are pay­ing about 40 per­cent less per mile driven than they were 15 years ago. And that’s the crux of this cri­sis.”

Emil H. Frankel, a trans­porta­tion pol­icy ex­pert at the Bi­par­ti­san Pol­icy Cen­ter in Washington, also said the cur­rent gas- tax rate is un­sus­tain­able and should be in­creased.

“In the long haul, we’ve got to shift to a more di­rect user-based sys­tem, like a mileage fee,” he said. “In the short run, the gaso­line tax should be set at lev­els to meet the obli­ga­tion.”

But Mr. Frankel ap­plauded the Se­nate bill, say­ing it es­tab­lished im­por­tant first steps that “can lead to more re­spon­si­ble decision mak­ing about how we in­vest scare re­sources.”

The White House also praised the Se­nate for pass­ing the bill and urged the House to do the same.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sen. Bar­bara Boxer, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, co-wrote the trans­porta­tion bill that was passed by the Se­nate on Wed­nes­day by a 74-22 vote.

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