Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Republican Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) today discussed the need for committee action to keep federal highway funds flowing to the states for the remainder of the year and put the Highway Trust Fund on solid footing for the long-term. Wyden told his colleagues: “It’s going to take $100 billion just to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent for six years. Meeting that bar will give states the chance to think ahead, and construction workers won’t have to worry about being laid off because of Washington inaction.”
Hatch echoed those sentiments by stating: “We do face a near-term problem in that reimbursements to states will likely be impacted if the trust fund is not shored up in the very near future. Neither the Chairman nor I want to see a slow-down in payments. Let’s keep in mind that, however we deal with the immediate shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, the long-term funding problem will still loom before us.” Hatch, along with several other committee members, expressed support for preserving the user-fee model of funding federal highway and public transportation investments in the future and voiced concern about the prospect of needing to repeatedly prop-up the trust fund with an infusion of non-transportation revenues.
The premise of today’s Finance Committee hearing was to explore new methods of funding and financing highway and transit investment. While several of the witnesses, including ARTBA member Samara Barend of AECOM Capital, have extensive experience in public-private partnerships, the majority of the committee’s discussion was about the trust fund. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) led the hearing with an impassioned plea for the Finance Committee to produce $100 billion in revenues over the next six years to support her committee’s proposed reauthorization bill—which she said would be completed today and acted on by the EPW Committee next week. Boxer also urged the Finance Committee members against a short-term extension, noting “Short-term extensions extend uncertainty, and uncertainty is the death knell for our states.”
Other witnesses consistently made the point that innovative financing and alternative procurement methods are not a substitute for core federal and state surface transportation investments. Barend noted, “private finance can never replace the need for federal and state funding.” Barend also said one of the most important things the committee could do to continue private involvement in transportation infrastructure improvements is expanding the Private Activity Bond cap for highway and surface transportation freight projects. ARTBA reinforced these points in a statement submitted for the hearing record.
While Wyden, Hatch and other members of the Finance Committee clearly expressed their intent to address the Highway Trust Fund’s latest revenue crisis, they did not provide any specifics as to how, when, or for what duration they would act. As such, today’s hearing should be considered a positive first step in what may be a long process to stabilize the Trust Fund.