The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee convened a hearing on November 28 to discuss surface transportation issues. Entitled, “Addressing America’s Surface Transportation Infrastructure Needs,” the hearing largely focused on funding the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), with witnesses telling lawmakers that increasing the federal fuel tax would be the most efficient way to shore up the HTF in the short-term.
In response to a request from Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) for examples of public-private partnerships, Mr. Carlos M. Braceras, President of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), discussed both tolling and commercializing rest areas.
“We…do public-private partnerships right now in our rest areas. We work with private companies to provide features in our rest areas that we could not have done before,” Braceras said.
Commercial rest areas threaten local businesses, including travel centers, that operate at Interstate exit interchanges and contribute millions to local communities in tax revenues and support local jobs. Commercialized rest areas also threaten blind business owners, who currently enjoy a priority under federal law for operating the vending machines at Interstate rest areas. NATSO, in conjunction with associations that represent off-highway businesses, actively opposes revenue measures that undercut the travel center industry’s ability to grow and prosper, such as commercializing Interstate rest areas and tolling existing Interstates. Instead, NATSO believes Congress should increase the federal fuel tax while it recalibrates how it pays for infrastructure in the long-term.
Following Braceras’ remark on commercialization, Mr. James Corless, Executive Director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, explained that he does not believe public-private partnerships are a viable way to generate untapped revenue, but instead of tool that should be used to supplement federal funding.
Senator Van Hollen agreed. “Public-private partnerships are innovative way to leverage some additional resources, but the goal is not to make a profit…If [Congress does not] increase the federal funding component [of surface transportation], you are going to see more pressure to leverage funds with public-private partnerships.”
When lawmakers asked how to stabilize the HTF, the panelists kept returning to the federal fuel tax. Braceras explained that an increased fuel tax could serve as a stopgap until a road usage charge or vehicle miles traveled fee can replace the fuel tax. Additionally, Corless urged lawmakers to explore user fees that account for the vehicle using a rural road rather than an urban road at a peak time. Corless asked Congress to include pilot programs in the highway reauthorization that would explore the issue.
Until these alternatives can be implemented, EPW Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) called on President Donald Trump to provide lawmakers, especially Republicans traditionally hesitant to increase the federal fuel tax, with political cover.
“The key in getting stuff done on the financing side is leadership,” Carper said. “If the president will show that kind of leadership we can make a whole lot of progress.”
“We’re hearing it from both sides of the aisle, and presumably even from the President of the United States, that if we want to build roads and bridges and infrastructure, we have to come up with some revenue solutions,” Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) agreed.
Both Chairman Barrasso and Ranking Member Carper expressed their desire to move a bipartisan bill next year before the highway authorization expires in 2020.
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