With House GOP leadership making it abundantly clear that they would be pleased to return federal transportation policy to the 1950s, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works met today to get serious about the who, what and how of funding a 21st century transportation system.
Meeting with a panel of transportation officials and local-level policymakers, committee chair Barbara Boxer repeated her interest in indexing the gas tax to inflation and expanding the TIFIA loan program to become the more robust funding option outlined in the America Fast Forward plan. Support for a “robust” bill came from across party lines, but as usual there were divisions between those from rural and urban areas.
Indexing the federal gas tax from its current rate of 18.4 cents per gallon to an ‘ad valorem’ tax based on the consumer price index would increase revenue for federal transportation programs over time without, technically, raising the gas tax. Of the committee members at the hearing, only Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders expressed concern, worrying that anything that might raise the cost of gasoline would adversely affect rural communities, but he did not object to indexing outright.
The hearing was the committee’s first since a bi-partisan show of support last week for America Fast Forward. Boxer made it clear that she believes TIFIA can “fast forward” infrastructure projects across the board — lending big sums upfront if the local recipient has a revenue stream to back up their borrowing. She said that the Fed could potentially come in at the beginning of a project and put up the initial funding, perhaps as much as 50 percent of the total projected costs.
When Boxer asked the panelists if they would support this method of leveraging, Malone and Bill Kennedy, a county commissioner from Montana, voiced strong concerns with TIFIA, noting that needed projects in their states do not qualify because they are not big enough. Boxer was quick to defend America Fast Forward as a huge benefit for them, saying it would amend TIFIA to ensure rural areas could apply for grants — not loans — to get their projects moving.
Paul Degges of the Tennessee Department of Transportation said he might accept grants but would not support taking loans from the federal government. He claimed his state has zero debt in transportation projects because it never borrows money, which confused Senator Boxer. “You mean to say you don’t borrow from banks? Use bonds?” she asked. Degges said his DOT never spends a dollar it does not have in hand but did not explain further.
Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin was the committee’s most vocal supporter of multi-modal transportation, asking what panelists thought about Highway Trust Fund money being used for non-highway and non-motorized projects, like multi-use trails and bikeways. Every panelist said federal funding should be transportation-specific but flexible, which would leave the question of which mode to spend on up the local agency spending the money.
Some panelists clearly don’t need mandates to invest in bike and pedestrian projects. “A bike path project is important in encouraging people to bike or walk to work,” said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett. “You are taking cars off the road and it enhances the ability of people to get where they are going.”
Degges made no mention of bike infrastructure, but he definitely does not want to see transit cut out of the HTF, as some GOP leaders have suggested. “Rural areas in Tennessee are starving for access,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean more roads. Every county is served by public transportation.”