By Lauren Schapker, vice president of legislative affairs, ARTBA
Highway Trust Fund (HTF) solvency remained the elephant in the room as federal leaders discussed how to pay for surface transportation investment during the annual Washington Briefing of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). A range of options were presented by congressional and administration leaders, but consensus on specifics at this stage is not necessary.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also addressed the group and shared his perspective that the future revenues to the HTF will not look like the past.
“Maybe more than at any time, it feels like so many different possibilities are on the table, even some of the principles are on the table… A principle like the user-pays principle is not the only way some members of Congress are thinking about this,” said Buttigieg.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, told the AASHTO meeting that finding the $150 billion needed to pay for the bill he advanced last Congress will be a challenge and cast doubt on a gas tax increase receiving support. He suggested a fee on the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by heavy trucks could be a bridge toward a national VMT. Buttigieg echoed a similar sentiment, when he suggested efforts on the commercial side could present a path forward on a road usage assessment.
DeFazio’s Republican counterpart on the T&I Committee, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), is a proponent of shifting to a national VMT system, and in remarks to AASHTO he reinforced that alternative fuel and electric vehicles should be paying for their road use, too.
While the meeting highlighted the diverse views from decision makers on how to stabilize the HTF, it also underscored the challenge in finding consensus in a narrowly divided Congress. Top Republican on the Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va), warned against “lightning rod pay-fors” during a Feb. 24 hearing, but she did not indicate which alternatives she was referencing or what might be agreeable.
A presentation from Brian Bezio, the chief financial officer of the Federal Highway Administration, stressed that Congress may have to solve this problem as soon as September, or make another transfer from the General Fund to maintain HTF solvency. More clarity will be learned when an adjustment to the HTF balance is made in March. In a conflicting report, the Congressional Budget Office suggested solvency would not be an issue until summer 2022.
Regardless of timing, it is clear an outcome on the revenue question will be a necessary component of any multi-year reauthorization or temporary extension.