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Congress Begins Grappling With New Surface Transportation Funding Bill

The current federal surface transportation funding bill expires this summer. A crucial revenue source is the federal gas tax trust fund, now chronically insolvent. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised in 16 years, and it isn’t indexed to inflation. A highway system built in the 1950s and 1960s continues to wear down under heavy use, increasing funding needs for maintenance, and capacity expansion, while improved vehicle mileage has tightened the revenue flow from the per-gallon gas tax. Congress wants to roughly double the current spending plan to nearly $500 billion for the next six years. A draft House version of the new bill has been introduced, but it’s unclear where the money would come from and whether the bill can be approved by the Sept. 30 deadline some key lawmakers favor. The Obama administration instead wants to develop a stop-gap funding plan and then take up the reauthorization bill – in full – 18 months later.

The timing debate aside, another concern is that the draft bill would, if approved with current House language intact, impose strict federal limits on new plans for (variable-rate electronic) tolling on interstate highways and create new federal regulations on public-private partnerships (P3s) in surface transportation. Variable-rate tolling is an increasingly popular strategy used by major metro regions on state routes and interstate highways to fund important corridor improvements and control peak-hour congestion. For several decades now, the federal government has effectively – and wisely – given metro regions broad latitude in developing and implementing congestion relief policies, including tolling new lanes on interstates, and state routes, with variable rates. And regulation of transportation P3s has essentially been left to the states. As Reuters reports below on 6/25, Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood is in the reauthorization debate underscoring the need for increased emphasis on user fees (including tolling) and private investment, and holding firm against a federal gas tax hike.

It’s likely to be a long and winding road to the final bill, and along the way we can expect a robust conversation about transit, tolling, the ailing gas tax and even a ground-breaking proposal to tax vehicles by the mile on all roads, a strategy tested in landmark pilot programs in Oregon and metro Puget Sound. Here are key articles on the current reauthorization dialog, which we’ll keep updated.

House “Blueprint” of reauthorization bill (84 p., pdf) (see p. 32 for proposed tolling restrictions)

Full text of House bill (775 p., pdf)

NEW: “Funding Conundrum Persists For U.S. Transpo Overhaul,” Ken Orski, Cascadia Prospectus, 8/10/09

U.S. Senate Committee OKs $20 Billion For Highway Fund,” Reuters, 7/15/09

A Road Map, Or A Road To Ruin?” Los Angeles Times editorial board, 7/1/09

Patching Trust Fund Gap May Trump Fast OK Of New Transpo Bill,” Ken Orski, Cascadia Prospectus, 6/29/09

White House Says Transportation System Overhaul Must Wait,” Washington Post, 6/26/09

Government Estimates $20 Billion Highway Funding Shortfall,” Reuters, 6/25/09

Oberstar’s Transportation Bill Begins Legislative Journey,” Minnesota Public Radio, 6/23/09

With Road Ending For Highway Law, Congress Tackles New Blueprint,” McClatchy Newspapers, 6/23/09

House Transportation Bill: Where’s The Money, & Can It Pass In ’09?” Ken Orski, Cascadia Prospectus, 6/22/09

U.S. House Wants More Transit Spending, Fewer Tolls,” The Newspaper, 6/22/09

K Street Behind Oberstar’s Highway Bill,” The Hill, 6/22/09

Road Indulgence,” Riverside, CA Press-Enterprise, 6/22/09

The Oberstar Transportation Bill Is Fatally Flawed,” Robert Poole, Reason Foundation, Out Of Control Policy Blog, 6/19/09

Delays Ahead: Ambitious Plans For American Transport Run Into Reality,” The Economist, 6/18/09