Congressional Quarterly: Highway Funding Fix Should be Part of Tax Overhaul, Administration Says

By Nathan Hurst, CQ Roll Call

The Transportation Department’s top policy official said Thursday that the White House has a number of long-term transportation financing ideas under discussion and is hoping they will be part of any tax overhaul discussions on Capitol Hill.

“I can say the White House and the administration, we have some other ideas potentially about different ways we can fund transportation,” said Polly Trottenberg, the department’s undersecretary for policy. “But clearly it’s going to need to be part of a bipartisan discussion that we have in the context of a budget and tax overhaul that’s done here on the Hill.”

Trottenberg was among several Transportation Department officials on hand Thursday for a hearing by the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee to explore options for repairing and improving the nation’s infrastructure.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., has been a longtime champion of boosting infrastructure investments. But the catastrophic collapse last month of a bridge on Interstate 5 north of Seattle brought new urgency to the cause.

Trottenberg wouldn’t elaborate much on specific proposals to replace or supplement the current 18.4-cents-per-gallon retail tax on gasoline, though she did hint that the administration was warm to the idea of an “upstream” petroleum tax. Similar to a state-level plan moving forward in Virginia, it would tax gasoline at the wholesale level rather than at the filling pump.

It could also represent a rare piece of common ground for the divided Congress. A five-year transportation proposal approved last year by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but never brought to the floor for a vote would have expanded domestic oil and gas drilling and devoted the new revenue to infrastructure investments.

In its fiscal 2014 budget proposal, the White House reiterated calls to invest some of the money saved by winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to infrastructure, including $214 billion in new funds for a revamped Highway Trust Fund that would also cover high-speed rail projects. Trottenberg said there was little expectation that Congress would act on the proposal.

“We wanted to make the priority that we were going to engage in some nation-building here at home,” Trottenberg said. “But we recognize that many on the Hill have different ideas about how those funds should be spent.”

Still, she said it was critical to devise a solution before the current surface transportation authorization (PL 112-141) expires in September 2014. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the fund will be insolvent shortly after that deadline without new revenue sources.

“There have been a number of good ideas that the states have been looking at,” Trottenberg said in response to repeated questions from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on what solutions the White House was considering. “My administration hasn’t come out publicly for any of those.”

Options that states are trying include a vehicle mileage tax, which Oregon has been testing in recent months. Drivers pay 1.6 cents per mile driven to cover their share of road maintenance instead of a per-gallon tax on fuel.

Proponents like the tax because it would capture revenue from all drivers, not just those burning conventional gas or diesel. Critics worry that gathering the data needed to collect the tax could infringe on privacy.


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