8 Senate Dems Join Industry in a Gas-Tax Warning to Climate Bill’s Authors

As Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) prepare to unveil a new climate change measure that includes a tax on motor fuels, eight of their colleagues are urging the trio not to forget local transportation planning -- and warning that any new gas tax should be used to help pay for a new federal infrastructure bill, not redirected for other purposes.

carper.jpgSen. Tom Carper (D-DE) (Photo: Politics Daily)
In a letter sent today to Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman, the eight Senate sponsors of a proposal to guarantee clean transport a share of the revenue generated by a cap-and-trade system for cutting emissions asked that their bill's core mission be preserved in the upper chamber's new "tripartisan" climate bill.

The Senate letter follows a similar missive sent to Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman last week by 27 groups representing road, transit, bicycling, engineering, and labor interests.

Those groups warned the trio bluntly that using proceeds from a new fuel tax for purposes other than funding new transportation projects -- such as rebating the money back to consumers, as Graham suggested last month -- would exacerbate the already significant funding crisis facing federal infrastructure policymakers.

But the hesitation of Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman's colleagues ultimately could carry the most weight, given that the trio's forthcoming climate bill would need to win backing from nearly every Democratic senator in order to overcome a GOP filibuster.

"We are concerned that, in addition to realizing insufficient transportation emissions reductions, your legislation may not invest revenue generated from the transportation sector into our crumbling infrastructure," the group of eight wrote.

The letter was spearheaded by Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Arlen Specter (D-PA), lead authors of the so-called "CLEAN TEA" bill, and signed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

Their letter notes that the U.S. DOT estimates that $30 billion more per year is needed simply to maintain the nation's existing transport infrastructure. "Improving our infrastructure to provide for the maximum economic benefit," they continued, "will require an additional investment of $75 billion per year. If your legislation raises revenue from the transportation sector but does not reinvest funds into infrastructure, our efforts to enact a surface transportation authorization bill in the near future will be constrained." 

More than three dozen transportation reform and environmental groups followed today with a third letter making similar points. An excerpt from that letter follows after the jump, along with the full transportation industry letter sent last week.

The transport-reform and environmental groups, including Transportation for America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club, joined Amtrak, and advocates for urbanism, bicycling, and high-speed rail in their letter to Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman. Here's an excerpt:

Providing some level of direct consumer rebates within your bill may be one way to address transportation costs. However, it is even more important to invest in essential public infrastructure and technology that will create jobs now and save Americans money on transportation costs in the long term, including strategies such as expanded public transportation, vehicle electrification, and complete streets. A robust portion of the revenue generated by your legislation should be invested in such transportation technology and infrastructure.
Here's a complete copy of the letter sent to the Senate trio last week by 27 transport industry groups, including the full list of signatories:

Dear Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman:

On behalf of the organizations signed below, we write to urge you to develop a proposal for climate and energy legislation that retains the long-standing principle of dedicating revenues derived from transportation motor fuels to improving the nation’s highway and public transportation systems. To that end, we hope to work with you to develop a strategy that promotes energy independence, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and improves the condition of critical transportation infrastructure.

Federal motor fuel user fees have supported the Federal Highway Trust Fund since 1956 and the Mass Transit Account of the Trust Fund since 1982. These user fees are the lifeblood of our highways and transit systems which move millions of people and tons of cargo every day. Previous increases in the federal motor fuels tax rate in 1990 and 1993 dedicated some revenue to temporary, short-term deficit reduction, an important goal that remains relevant today, but every other increase has supported long-term investment in our transportation infrastructure. Since 1997 all motor fuel revenues have been deposited in the Trust Fund.

Our surface transportation system faces monumental challenges. The needs of our roads and transit systems far exceed current investment levels. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that more than $30 billion per year of new investment is needed simply to maintain our highways, bridges, and transit systems in their current state of repair and $75 billion of new investment is needed annually to improve conditions and performance. Unfortunately, the current authorizing law for highway and transit programs expired last year and has been repeatedly extended on a short-term basis. This prevents states and transit agencies from advancing much-needed transportation projects that require predictable, multi-year funding. Further, the Highway Trust Fund has required several transfers of funds over the past three years and a restoration of interest payments to remain temporarily solvent, but it still cannot sustain the current rate of outlays. Any proposal to divert user fees from motor fuels while our roads, bridges, and transit systems are neglected is not sound policy.

The solution to the transportation crisis is the quick passage of a new multi-year authorization bill that accelerates job creation with significant new investment and institutes a more performance-oriented federal transportation program. Enacting a new transportation bill quickly will be very difficult, if not impossible, should Congress approve legislation that diverts revenue from carbon-based fees from motor fuels away from the transportation investment.

Failure to enact a transportation bill will not only harm our economic competitiveness, it will impair the ability of states, counties, cities and transit systems to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce transportation-related emissions. Without a new authorization bill, expanding access to transportation choices like public transportation that reduce emissions and modernizing our highways and infrastructure simply cannot occur. The transportation sector accounts for 70 percent of domestic oil consumption and one-third of carbon pollution.

New fees placed on transportation fuels should be dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund and invested along with other surface transportation funds under a multi-year highway and transit authorization bill. Increasing the availability of funds for transportation would help address transportation infrastructure investment needs and expand access to public transportation and other fuel-saving transportation improvements. We hope to work with you to develop climate and energy legislation that benefits the environment, as well as our economy, our workers and the surface transportation infrastructure on which we all rely.

Sincerely,

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)
American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA)
American Public Transportation Association (APTA)
Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU)
America Bikes
American Concrete Pavement Association (ACPA)
American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC)
American Highway Users Alliance
American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA)
American Trucking Associations (ATA)
Associated Equipment Distributors (AED)
Associated General Contractors of America (AGC)
Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT)
Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM)
Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO)
International Union of Operating Engineers
Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA!)
League of American Bicyclists
National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA) 3
National Association of Counties (NACo)
National Association of Development Organizations (NADO)
National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA)
New Starts Working Group
Safe Routes to School National Partnership
Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America