The Good News Is That Some Representatives Do Understand

You have to say that the first 50 days of the current Administration have been filled with news, news and more news, along with controversy, hot issues and problems. The other day, on one of the morning shows, the commentators were discussing the visible signs of stress that accompany the job of being President. The TV folks posted a picture of President Obama taken during the Inauguration and one taken a day or so ago. The increase in gray hair along the President’s temples was noticeable.

There have been many comments published lately about the budget proposal and the Administration’s efforts to move the Highway Trust Fund and other similar funds back into the general budget. Attempts like these will get him a whole head of gray hair. It’s good to see so many representatives from both parties becoming vocal about this maneuver.

I well remember the days when highway dollars were apportioned annually and the entire country would sit and wait for the announcement of how much was going to be spent on the transportation infrastructure. It was during this time that our highway system started its serious and unending, downward slide.

It was by putting these funds into separate trusts and keeping them out of the general budget that we started on the road to recovery. Citizens didn’t object to the “gas tax” when they knew it was being spent for transportation. The complaints were when gas tax dollars got spent on other, non-related projects.

I was encouraged when Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) said that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had no choice but to use financing mechanisms when drafting the new six-year Highway Trust Fund bill that comes due in September of this year.

Oberstar told reporters, “” We will have multiple revenue sources as we go into the authorization period. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will be one.” He added that VMT is, “a more efficient, more effective, more beneficial way to generate revenues into the Highway Trust Fund because it will more accurately measure the effect on the roadways of congestion, of wear and tear on our road and bridge surfaces than a simple gas tax.”

The multi-pronged approach has also received the backing of two congressionally created transportation panels and a growing, but still small, number of lawmakers, including House Ways and Means Committee member, Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who previously worked with Oberstar on the Transportation Committee. The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission recently called for a temporary 10-cent increase, to 28.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, followed by a full transition to a roughly 2-cent fee per mile as the dominant federal funding source for transportation projects by 2020.

Oberstar said that a number of funding mechanisms could be used in the future, but a temporary increase in the gas tax would be necessary to bridge the near-term funding shortfall.

“We’ll have to transition out of the gas tax; we’ll also have to increase it,” he said. “It hasn’t been increased since 1993 because we’ve had eight years of the ‘no tax’ mentality in the White House, and that’s changed.”

The VMT tax has been bantered about recently in the press when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood commented that it would need to be considered if we were going to meet and serve the needs of the country. He received quick criticism from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Gibbs told the press that, “it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration.”

Oberstar and Rep. John Mica (R-FL) defended LaHood stating that we could not dismiss any funding methods without full consideration.

Oberstar repeated his harsh words for Gibbs. “When the Transportation Secretary was slapped down by the White House, I said very clearly transportation policy is not going to be written in the newsroom of the White House, it’s going to be written on Capitol Hill.”

Oberstar also said that before he and his fellow lawmakers would be able to convince the public of the merits of the new funding mechanisms, they would need to finish the work of overhauling and streamlining the nation’s transportation strategy. “First, before we can talk about revenue, we have to establish the structure for the next transportation program. And when that is in place and the public sees what we’re going to deliver to them and they see that the recovery plan has created jobs and moved projects out, they will then be engaged in a dialogue about how to pay for the future.”

As it stands right now, Oberstar and Mica are working on drafting a six-year national surface transportation authorization bill that they hope to have ready by June.

Electric vehicles will have to be factored into the funding methodology devised by the new bill since they currently are exempt from the gas tax. Under existing conditions, buying an electric vehicle will not only get you a tax credit, you also escape paying the gasoline tax. With GPS devices installed on cars it will be easy enough to track the miles traveled, and everyone will contribute to the maintenance, repair and improvement of our highways.

Realistically, the government cannot afford to eliminate the current gas tax nor can it ignore other possible revenue streams for the funding of our highway system.

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The amount of money the U.S. Department of Transportation takes in from gasoline taxes was down $71 million in fiscal 2008 from the year before because we’re driving much less, and doing it in more fuel-efficient cars.

Last December, the Federal Highway Administration said, was the 14th straight month in which vehicle miles traveled declined on American roads. In 2008, we used 5.25 billion (with a “b”) less gallons of gasoline than we did in 2007. In December itself, travel on all roads was down 1.6 percent, which is 3.8 billion vehicle miles.

Our roads make a major difference in our ability to compete in a global economy. We use them, they wear out. Time passes, they deteriorate. We ignore them, they fall apart. The bottom line is that if we want roads, some one has to pay for them, and that some one is us.

Greg Sitek

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