TRANSPORTATION:

Vehicle-mile fee, higher gas tax needed -- Oberstar

A temporary hike to the federal gas tax and a controversial plan to charge Americans for every mile they drive will be part of the funding mix for future roadwork, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said today.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), whose committee is drafting the House bill that will finance the bulk of the nation's surface transportation for the next six years, said because federal revenues from fuel taxes have fallen, his committee has no choice but to use new financing mechanisms to make up the difference.

"We will have multiple revenue sources as we go into the authorization period," Oberstar told reporters today. "Vehicle miles traveled will be one."

Charging drivers a small fee for every mile they travel is "a more efficient, more effective, more beneficial way to generate revenues into the Highway Trust Fund because it will more accurately measure the effect on the roadways of congestion, of wear and tear on our road and bridge surfaces than a simple gas tax," he added.

Oberstar had previously signaled his support for the general idea of the pricing scheme but had stopped short of saying it would need to be part of the upcoming highway authorization bill his committee hopes to finish by the start of June.

The multipronged approach has also received the backing of two congressionally created transportation panels and a growing, but still small, number of lawmakers, including House Ways and Means Committee member, Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who previously worked with Oberstar on the Transportation Committee.

The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission recently called for a temporary 10-cent increase, to 28.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, followed by a full transition to a roughly 2-cent fee per mile as the dominant federal funding source for transportation projects by 2020.

Increases in fuel economy coupled with the fact the current federal gas tax has remained stagnant for more than a decade has already taken a toll on federal revenues to fund road and transit construction and maintenance. The Highway Trust Fund would have run dry last September if it were not for an $8 billion transfer by Congress to keep it in the black.

Pricing advocates argue the gas tax fails to force drivers to confront the true cost of using roads and bridges. Because of relatively frequent swings in the price of fuel, they say many Americans associate the tax with the cost of gas and not of driving. They argue by pricing roads, Americans will drive less, in turn cutting congestion and the air pollution and oil consumption that accompanies the gridlock.

Gas tax hike

Oberstar said while a number of funding mechanisms could be used in the future, a temporary increase in the gas tax is necessary to bridge the near-term funding shortfall.

"We'll have to transition out of the gas tax; we'll also have to increase it," he said. "It hasn't been increased since 1993 because we've had eight years of the 'no tax' mentality in the White House, and that's changed."

Former President George W. Bush balked at the idea of a tax increase and so far President Obama has done the same. His administration has said that with the economy reeling, now is not the time to increase taxes.

The White House also came out against the vehicle-miles-traveled user fee, despite Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggesting it would need to be considered. LaHood's suggestion drew a sharp rebuke from the administration, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs telling reporters that "it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration."

Oberstar and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the top Republican on the Transportation Committee, quickly came to LaHood's defense, arguing the nation could not afford to dismiss any funding alternative without first giving it full consideration.

Today, Oberstar repeated his harsh words for Gibbs. "When the Transportation secretary was slapped down by the White House, I said very clearly transportation policy is not going to be written in the newsroom of the White House, it's going to be written on Capitol Hill," he said.

Still, Oberstar said that before he and his fellow lawmakers would be able to convince the public of the merits of the new funding mechanisms, they would need to finish the work of overhauling and streamlining the nation's transportation strategy. "First, before we can talk about revenue, we have to establish the structure for the next transportation program," he said. "And when that is in place and the public sees what we're going to deliver to them and they see that the recovery plan has created jobs and moved projects out, they will then be engaged in a dialogue about how to pay for the future."

Oberstar and Mica have said they hope to finish work on the upcoming six-year national surface transportation authorization, which will provide the majority of federal transportation dollars and dictate the nation's transportation strategy, in the coming months. The current authorization expires at the end of September.