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U.S. DOT Official: Gas Tax Debate Could Jam Up Infrastructure Talks

A traffic jam on a highway, during 2017.

A traffic jam on a highway, during 2017. shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

"We don’t want that to happen," according to Anthony Bedell, the agency's deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs.

WASHINGTON — Injecting debate about a gas tax hike into infrastructure discussions getting underway in Congress could bog down efforts to advance a public works package like the one President Trump is pushing for, a top U.S. Department of Transportation official cautioned here Saturday.

Anthony Bedell, deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs with the agency, noted at a gathering of county officials that lawmakers are "trying to start mixing" discussions about the Highway Trust Fund and reauthorizing the nation's surface transportation program, with talks about the White House infrastructure proposal.

Fuel taxes provide the primary source of revenue for the trust fund, which is a main federal account for roads and mass transit.

"We’re happy to have that conversation if Congress wants to have it," Bedell said. But he added: "A big gas tax debate while we’re trying to do something separate may grind things to a halt. We don’t want that to happen.”

He also said in his remarks that "the end of March is when I think you’ll start to hear about bill drafting" and that this would provide a "pivot point," where county officials would be able to offer more input.

“We need it done this year," Bedell said, referring to the sort of infrastructure package Trump has proposed. "Then we can talk about Highway Trust Fund and surface reauthorization next year.”

The president submitted an infrastructure blueprint to Congress on Feb. 12 that would involve $200 billion of federal funding, mostly for new grant programs. The administration's goal is to spur a total of about $1.5 trillion of infrastructure investment over 10 years when combining the federal money with state, local and private dollars.

Not identified in the plan are new revenue streams to pay for the proposed spending. The Trump administration has suggested that budget cuts to other programs could help cover the cost.

Trump's plan also includes an array of proposals to speed up environmental permitting and approvals for infrastructure projects, with the aim of completing the processes in two years or less.

The president in recent weeks has floated the idea of raising the gas tax. But Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao declined to clarify Trump's current position on the issue during a Senate hearing last Thursday. DJ Gribbin, an infrastructure adviser to the president, said the same day the administration is not for or against raising the tax.

Bedell made his comments to a National Association of Counties transportation committee at NACo's 2018 legislative conference.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently told Route Fifty that if major infrastructure legislation comes together this year, he thinks it "has to have something" in it to address the Highway Trust Fund's finances.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Highways and Transit has a hearing scheduled for next Wednesday titled: "Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Long-Term Funding for Highways and Transit Programs."

In recent years, the trust fund has had financial difficulties as spending from it has outpaced dwindling gas tax revenues. Lawmakers have used general fund transfers as a financial Band-Aid. The latest bill propping up the account is set to expire in 2020.

Improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency, and the emergence of electric-powered and shared vehicles are among the trends threatening to further undermine gas tax revenues in the years ahead.

Former U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during his time in office, also spoke at the NACo committee meeting, and weighed in on the Highway Trust Fund, describing the fund as "depleted."

“I have not been a fan of increasing the gas tax because it doesn’t really solve our problem," said Mica, who lost his 2016 reelection bid.

“Every day we’re here, cars are driving further and paying less,” he added. “Eventually, and I can say this now, I couldn’t say it when I was chairman, it'll be vehicle-miles travelled."

Gary Moore, the county judge/executive in Boone County, Kentucky chairs NACo's transportation steering committee. He said it was still too soon for him to weigh in on how he'd like the specifics of Trump's infrastructure plan translated into legislation, but expressed appreciation that the president had made the issue a priority.

"Just the fact that he's talking about infrastructure is great for counties," Moore said. "It'll be interesting to see what Congress does."

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Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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