By David Bauer, senior vice president of government relations, ARTBA
Members of the Senate Finance Committee June 18 overwhelmingly declared their commitment to finding a way to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) as soon as possible to support needed surface transportation improvements. Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told his colleagues during the hearing, “I want to make it clear at the outset that my goal as chairman of this committee is to find a way to fund a long-term infrastructure bill.”
In contrast to a June 17 hearing in the House where Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) conceded a general fund transfer to temporarily patch the trust fund would be needed by the end of July, a number of senators routinely cited they have 40-plus days to act on a long-term solution. The current short-term extension of the highway and public transportation programs expires July 31.
Another common theme that emerged from the Senate hearing was the need for a bipartisan path forward and cooperation among committee members. While Hatch said he didn’t think a gas tax increase could be enacted—largely due to opposition in the House of Representatives—a number of senators and witnesses urged the committee to consider all options—including user fees.
The options before the panel and Congress at large were succinctly captured by Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) who noted Congress could: cut spending by 30 percent to what current trust fund revenues could support—a path he said was “not realistic;” find savings within the transportation programs to reduce spending, but he observed that when the GOP-controlled House tried to eliminate transit investment several years ago “they couldn’t pass it;” find new revenues; or deficit spend, which he noted is what Congress has been doing and “that is unacceptable.”
While Chairman Hatch did not describe the committee’s next step, the clear support for action from members of both parties is a constructive signal. The Finance Committee is scheduled to have a second hearing next week on financing mechanisms to supplement core federal surface transportation investment.