'Stars align' on infrastructure, willingness to up federal gas tax
Members of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure showed a willingness to get a package moving and to invest appropriately.
Members of a U.S. House committee expressed a willingness to raise the federal gas tax for the first time since 1993, as the prospects of a federal infrastructure package seem to be gathering momentum.
During a Thursday hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, elected officials from both sides of the aisle said the timing for such a package appears to be perfect, given both parties’ willingness to tackle it, in addition to President Donald Trump mentioning such a plan in his recent State of the Union address.
The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Sam Graves, R-MO, said during his opening statement it is “pretty rare that the stars align like this on something in Congress.”
“I hope that we can take advantage of this opportunity, because we can’t afford to let our efforts get stuck in idle,” Graves continued.
That optimism stems in part from Trump’s address, in which he called for a “great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure.”
“I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill — and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future,” Trump continued.
While some critics said that one mention and no details was not enough, especially considering Trump’s previous infrastructure plan that went nowhere in the last Congress, it appeared to spark optimism among the likes of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, as well as those in Congress.
"The nation’s mayors agree with President Trump that passing an infrastructure bill is not an option, it is a necessity,” Columbia, SC Mayor and USCM President Steve Benjamin said in a statement.
Testimony on Capitol Hill focused on the infrastructure investment gap, with committee chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, warning that the American Society of Civil Engineers believes that gap is at $2 trillion over 10 years and is sure to keep rising.
"Unfortunately, highlighting needs has not spurred Congress to action,” DeFazio said. “So let me be clear that the question is not whether we will need to invest, but when we will invest. Inaction has serious consequences, and the cost of delay is high.”
The issue of how to pay for those infrastructure investments has traditionally flummoxed politicians at all levels, especially with the Highway Trust Fund quickly running out of money. But after an election cycle where Americans at the local and state level favored raising local gas taxes, there appears to be a renewed push to increase the federal gas tax, which has not been touched since 1993.
“This is something voters want, and you can take the risk of putting something forward,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said during his testimony.
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during testimony that a raise to the gas tax of 10 cents per gallon could be enough to help boost funding, with Rep. Don Young, R-AK, saying he is a “big supporter” of an increase. A gas tax may also have a lessened impact on consumers, as vehicles continue become electrified and improve emissions standards.
In addition, Graves said he favors introducing a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, which would track and charge motorists based on how many miles they have traveled. LaHood said both a gas tax hike and VMT, combined with the use of public-private partnerships (P3s) and tolling, could help “fix America’s problems with infrastructure.”
"You have to create a big pot of money,” LaHood said.
But some members of the committee expressed concerns about possible political fall-out from increasing the gas tax, especially with the likes of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform coming out hard against both a gas tax increase and a VMT tax.
"I don't know that a gas tax is bold, because quite frankly it's a short-term solution,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-NC, said. “We all know it, everyone of you at the table, knows a gas tax is a short-term solution. I'm willing to look at it, I'm willing to put in the political capital to make sure that we have proper funding, but what we have to do is do something that is truly bold."
While it is still early days, both Democrats and Republicans agreed on the need to invest in infrastructure.
"We all see the need for Republicans and Democrats to come together and pass an infrastructure package," Rep. Rodney Davis, R-IL, said.
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