The House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing Sept. 11 to explore strategies to address congestion and the financing of America’s roads. The hearing, which addressed such topics as tolling, congestion pricing and the need to increase federal motor fuels taxes, comes as House lawmakers draft their version of a highway reauthorization.
Current surface transportation law is set to expire in Sept. 2020. Although the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee issued its version of a reauthorization package in August, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is still working on its proposal. Those committees only have jurisdiction over highway policy, however, and it remains up to other committees to determine how to pay for a final package.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that finding the revenues to pay for infrastructure would be the most difficult part of reauthorizing the Highway Trust Fund. Congestion costs her constituents upwards of $1840 per year, she said, adding that insufficient infrastructure revenues have left states looking for more flexibility in how to come up with surface transportation revenues.
Both Congressman Peter DeFazio, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Holmes Norton expressed frustration with Congress’ inability to move forward and to garner new revenues for surface transportation. Congress passed the last highway reauthorization, known as the FAST Act, without any new revenues.
“I’m losing patience with what’s going on here. The Senate passed a bill with some good things, but if we don’t pay for what we need, we’re going to keep wasting money. The bottom line is we’ve got to pony up some money or we’re not going to solve any problems,” Rep. DeFazio said.
Referencing his previously introduced proposal that would index federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel and increase the motor fuels taxes by 1 cent per year, Rep. DeFazio said, “I proposed something so de minimis that it’s embarrassing we can’t do it. We are at a place of total paralysis.”
NATSO has long advocated for increasing the motor fuel excise tax as the most effective way to raise revenue for infrastructure. Members of Congress, however, have been reluctant to raise fuel taxes because of perceived adverse political consequences.
Darren Hawkins, Chief Operating Officer of trucking fleet YRC Worldwide Inc., said that he supports increasing the motor fuels taxes and that it represented an immediate solution to the infrastructure funding problem. Hawkins urged Congress to avoid tolling existing interstates to finance infrastructure construction and maintenance, arguing that it was inefficient, unsafe and damaging to the trucking industry.
“While the trucking industry is willing to pay its fair share for infrastructure improvement, we believe that tolls are not the right solution, and in fact can be very harmful to our industry, our customers and ultimately, to consumers,” Hawkins testified on behalf of the American Trucking Associations.
Hawkins cited inefficiencies in toll collection, traffic diversion and misdirection of toll funds as significant problems with tolling when compared to other financing methods. Hawkins also warned that because of federal funding shortfalls, states are abusing tolls to fund other projects at the expense of tollpayers.
In addition to YRC Worldwide, the Subcommittee heard from officials from the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute among others.
In advance of the hearing, the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates sent a letter to members of the subcommittee urging them to refrain from expanding tolling authority during the highway reauthorization process.
Rep. DeFazio said he was “disturbed by all this talk of tolling and congestion pricing” and that more federal investment was needed.
Lawmakers cited the high prices charged on some highway segments, including in the D.C. metro area and Atlanta, Ga., and the inability for motorists to afford them. Referencing a D.C. metro HOT lane that can reach upwards of $45 at peak times for a 10-mile stretch, for example, Rep. DeFazio said, “That’s not even a Lexus lane, that’s a chauffeured limousine lane. Who can afford that?”
Republicans also had mixed feelings about congestion pricing. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), ranking member of the subcommittee, urged witnesses to bring forward other ideas stating that congestion pricing may work in cities like Chicago but “I’m really not convinced it’s going to work in the smaller cities I represent.”
Ohio Republican Bob Gibbs said that the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) concept “is a failure” and a “joke.” Rep. Gibbs said that the U.S. can’t build capacity just to meet needs at certain times of day and that states should experiment with opening all of their lanes during peak times because what’s needed is better utilization of new and existing capacity.
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