Real Action in the “Din!”

By Pete Ruane

Doomsayers beware: late February brought a tangible sign of progress in the federal surface transportation reauthorization process. Two-thirds of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to their chamber’s leadership calling for “a long-term sustainable revenue source for our nation’s transportation network as soon as possible.” A majority of each House caucus—Republicans and Democrats—constituted the 285 signatures.

The letter makes clear at least three things.  First, there is underlying consensus among both parties about the proper role of the federal government in tackling national transportation infrastructure investment challenges.  Second, more short-term budget gimmicks, and the cycle of uncertainty and dysfunction plaguing the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) since 2008, must come to an end.  Third, there is overwhelming bipartisan support for legislative action that provides a sustainable revenue source for the nation’s transportation network

The authors of the letter deserve our special thanks. They were Reps. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, and Reps. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.) of the House Ways & Means Committee. These are the two committees with key jurisdiction over surface transportation reauthorization and its funding, respectively.

ARTBA and several members of the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC), which ARTBA co-chairs, knocked on numerous Capitol Hill office doors to promote the letter. Make no mistake, though: the final product would never have happened without the dedicated involvement of many ARTBA chapters and member-firms. As always, your prodding and cajoling from back home made the difference in getting several of the “wafflers” to sign on. ARTBA can frame the issue for members of Congress and their staff, but real live constituents like you are always critical to making the sale, whether on a key floor vote or signing on to a group letter like this. If your House member signed the letter, make sure to thank them and their staff!

Obviously, a mere letter, no matter how many signed it, is no substitute for a well-funded, multi-year reauthorization bill itself. But it is a step in the right direction, part of a treacherous legislative journey that requires perseverance and fortitude, as usual. It is a strong message to the House leadership that a reauthorization bill is not only possible, but a bipartisan political winner, and a chance to show that the new Congress can actually govern. Be assured that we are extracting every ounce of public attention for this letter—while also moving on to about two or three dozen other items on ARTBA’s reauthorization “to do” list.

Another sign of progress came during a Feb. 25 Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee hearing, which Chairman Jim Inhofe used to send a direct message to senators and outside groups about his opposition to the so-called “devolution” concept that would cut federal gas and diesel tax rates with the hope that state and local governments would raise revenue on their own to fill the resulting cuts in federal surface transportation investment.

Inhofe said he was one of the original founders of devolution 25 years ago and that “we realized that it didn’t work.” He noted the need for a national transportation system, saying “interstate commerce does not stop at state boundaries.” He also specified the substantial gas tax increases states would be required to pass if the federal gas tax were scaled back to the point some Republicans in Congress and outside professional conservative groups are advocating.

ARTBA has previously worked with the EPW and House Transportation & Infrastructure Committees to help them quantify the state gas tax increase that would be needed under the devolution proposals.

The Committee’s Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also talked at the hearing about the need to prevent more extensions of the highway and transit program. And former EPW Committee Chairman David Vitter (R-La.) reiterated his view that the three paths to generating new HTF revenue needed for a multi-year surface transportation bill are: a gas tax increase; recapturing overseas corporate tax revenue and allocating the resources to the HTF; and devoting royalties on new domestic energy production to the trust fund.

Add all these developments up and you can see there is finally “some real action in the din.” We’ll continue working to build momentum, and we urge you to do the same. Contact your members of Congress and tell them to take action on a permanent HTF fix ASAP!