By Dean Franks, ARTBA’s vice president of congressional affairs         

Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations Subcommittee members today told U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx the Administration’s Highway Trust Fund (HTF) plan was good, but not good enough. The Obama Administration’s GROW America proposal includes a six year, $478 billion surface transportation investment, and of that, $238 billion would come from new taxes on U.S. based multinational companies on revenue earned outside the U.S. to help pay for road, bridge, transit and rail improvements. Foxx told subcommittee members, “if we have to go through the struggle of passing a funding bill, let’s do something big.”

Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine), however, criticized the administration for not coming to the table with concrete solutions for the HTF situation. “Simply saying that we are happy to work with Congress is not an acceptable answer. This administration has had six years to provide Congress with specific proposals to reform the trust fund,” she said. Subcommittee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) added, “I’m afraid we are going to be stuck here and we aren’t going to make some tough choices about raising the revenues in order to invest in our future.   There is no better investment than infrastructure.  Every American will tell you that.  Everyone on this committee will tell you that.  The real key is to find the revenue and that’s what we have to do.”

In a discussion between Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number two Democrat in the Senate, and Foxx, Durbin demonstrated support for increasing user fees while offsetting the increase to lower income payers.  Durbin stated, “I will support whatever funding source we can come up with.  I would certainly like to see it more of a user fee tax related to the purchase of fuel, but I know that has diminishing returns with fuel economy.  I would like to see some relief in that tax for people of lower income that pay a disproportionate share of the tax from their income.  But I’m open.  I’m wide open.”

Foxx acknowledged the administration’s plan would be a temporary solution—albeit more long-term than anything Congress has done since 2005—but said, “At some level, it becomes what we can get the votes to pass.”

The THUD Subcommittee is charged with writing annual appropriations bills that set the levels of federal highway, transit and airport infrastructure investment.  In the past, the subcommittee has more or less stuck to the authorized surface transportation funding levels.  However, due to the inability of existing HTF revenues to maintain current levels of investment and the looming May 31 expiration of the latest highway/transit program extension, the appropriations situation—similar to the overall transportation construction marketplace—is in a state of limbo.