Boxer Pushes LaHood on Financing for Transportation

Senator Barbara Boxer got down to brass tacks on transportation funding in a committee hearing yesterday, even as DOT Secretary Ray LaHood remained vague on how to pay for the president’s ambitious proposal. Boxer said she’s not in favor of raising the gas tax, but she’d like it to be indexed to inflation. “We don’t even know if the president would go that far with us,” she said, but clearly something needs to be done.

Barbara Boxer wants to see TIFIA strengthened, the gas tax indexed, and TIGER maintained. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Boxer: It’s a good news, bad news story. Good news, because people are getting better fuel economy; bad news because the Highway Trust Fund is slipping. And I’m looking for ways to get more money in there but they’re hard to come by. And because I drive a hybrid I’m not paying my fair share.

Ranking Member James Inhofe: That’s all right, you ought to see what I’m driving. We average out.

Boxer: I’m sure we average out. But you’re paying more for the roads than I am. I may be on the road as long as you are but I’m getting 50 miles to the gallon. So I’m not filling up the car and you’re paying more than I am. So it’s not fair to him [Inhofe] – I mean I think I’m wise to this, but we all should pay our fair share. So I think vehicle-miles-traveled is the way to go but I don’t seem to get much excitement when I mention it. I think we could do it easily, when you re-up your registration, this is how many miles I have now, then – but I don’t have any takers. Indexing the gas tax – indexing, not raising it – I could do that.

Boxer started the hearing with a ringing endorsement for a major expansion of the TIFIA loan program. She said both she and House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica “embrace a much more robust TIFIA program.”

She said the federal government is almost entirely shielded from risk with TIFIA. She alluded to the leveraging that is possible when federal funds are used right, using as an example the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail project in Los Angeles, which made more than $500 million available at a cost of just $20 million to the federal government.

TIFIA loans only cover up to a third of a project, with local and state matches covering the rest. Boxer suggested allowing TIFIA to cover half of the project. DOT Budget Director Chris Bertram said that would be a mixed blessing – fewer projects could get federal money and less private investment would be involved, but it could be beneficial for projects that have a harder time attracting private investment.

Boxer asked Secretary LaHood, who was testifying at the hearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee, to support a TIFIA expansion. “In your budget, you call for a very large six-year bill,” she said. “But you really don’t – you say you look forward to working with us on how to fund it. I would respectfully suggest – and this is just me, speaking for myself – that this TIFIA program could be of enormous consequence. My understanding is that we are funding it at a very low level and the requests far surpass what we’ve been funding it at.”

Ray LaHood still won't get specific about how to fund the administration's transportation proposal. Photo: Tanya Snyder

But Secretary LaHood wasn’t nearly as specific as Boxer about how to fund the president’s $556 billion transportation proposal. He responded to Boxer’s push for expanded TIFIA funding by saying, “We like TIFIA,” and throwing in that he also likes the infrastructure bank and tolling. The president’s budget for 2012 authorizes $450 million for TIFIA – almost four times more than the amount authorized in SAFETEA-LU.

LaHood has been telling lawmakers, “We want to work with Congress on that,” when they ask him for funding justification for the president’s ambitious transportation proposal. The EPW hearing was the fourth time in a week that LaHood has appeared before Senate panels to be grilled about where the money for the plan was supposed to come from – especially with a gas tax hike off the table.

But when is that “working with Congress” part supposed to begin, if not now, while appearing daily before Senate committees that are trying to have a conversation with him about it? When asked about that after the hearing, LaHood just repeated, “We’re going to work with Congress.” But what funding options are even open for debate? “I’m not even going to get into that,” he said. “I’m going to wait to sit down in a room with these members of the House and Senate and see where they want to go.”

Both LaHood and Boxer also referred to a provision in the House budget proposal that would call for unobligated TIGER funds to be rescinded. The Senate is stalemated on the budget right now. LaHood and Boxer both condemned the call for rescissions. LaHood said the rescissions were a bad idea if Congress is trying to create jobs.

“People are expecting this money,” LaHood said. “And some of them are starting to realize now that if H.R.1 were to pass in the Senate, this money would come back to the federal treasury. And their dreams and aspirations and projects for high-speed rail, for transit, for light rail projects, streetcars and other things, roads and bridges, it would come back to the treasury.”

“They just cut the legs out from under these TIGER grants,” Boxer said.

10 thoughts on Boxer Pushes LaHood on Financing for Transportation

  1. I want to commend Tanya for good factual reporting of the goings-on on Capitol Hill and her increasing impatience with Sec. LaHood’s stonewalling of the funding issue. I am waiting to see the day when she finally admits that the Administration’s $556 billion budget proposal is more a delusion than a vision.
    Ken Orski
    Innovation NewsBriefs

  2. How is a VMT collected. The lump sum at the end of the year is just not a realistic way to collect these fees. Congress and the administration, by taking a gas tax increase off the table are burying their heads in the sand.

  3. “I may be on the road as long as you are but I’m getting 50 miles to the gallon. So I’m not filling up the car and you’re paying more than I am. So it’s not fair to him [Inhofe]”

    Considering that Inhofe is driving a gas guzzler that contributes far more to global warming than Boxher’s hybrid, Inhofe should be paying even more.

    Do people on this site really believe that we should charge less than we now do to those who drive huge SUVs, guzzle gasoline, and spew CO2?

    Is it “not fair” that those who do more damage to future generations are paying more?

    (Inhofe himself is now the nation’s leading global warming denier, and he himself is probably doing more damage than anyone else on the planet.)

  4. I’m torn on this. On one hand, as Charles Siegel points out, how much pollution you are releasing is determined by how much fuel you are consuming, so in that sense it doesn’t matter how many miles you go on a gallon of gas but just that you used a gallon of gas. In this case, charging a tax based on fuel usage makes sense.

    However, the pollution cars emit is just ONE of their many problems. Some of the other problems with cars: they massively contribute to the obesity epidemic, they cause horrible accidents due to their high speed (which disproportionately bias pedestrians and cyclists), they dehumanize our interactions, and they create tremendous amounts of noise (most of which is caused not by the engine but the wheels and the air rushing over it … but there’s also the damn overused horns, useless car alarms which do nothing to prevent theft but destroy peace and quiet, and over-powered thumping stereos). NONE of these problems with cars are taxed by a fuel tax. So in this case, I think the VMT tax is much better.

    My feeling is the best solution is a combination of both.

    With regards to the logistics of how you report your VMT, every year when you register your car with the DMV you have to report your mileage. In fact, in California and other states where you have to do a smog check and hence a shop can officially record your mileage, the shop would report the mileage.

  5. Should be noted that heavier vehicles–which gas guzzlers usually are– damage roads much more than lighter ones do. Damage is roughly proportional to the fourth power of weight, so a 3-ton vehicle does 16x the damage of a 1.5 ton car (and ~2.5 million times as much as a 150 lb biker, though I imagine the model breaks down at some point).

  6. Boxer’s position makes no sense. Gas guzzlers SHOULD pay more. It’s not “unfair” to expect the person generating the most pollution and wear on the road should have to pay more in taxes.

    If she thinks the gas tax is unpopular, wait until people have to deal with a mileage tax. How would that even be enforced? No one wants to have to take their car in every year to a government inspector. People don’t want electronic devices tracking them. People will very quickly figure out ways to cheat on it, anyway.

    Congress needs to suck it up and raise the gas tax to pay for our infrastructure needs. America is worth paying for.

    Better yet, write the law so that the gas tax automatically rises when the highway budget increases. Roads aren’t free.

  7. Add a transportation tax to tires. The tax collected would be directly related to the miles traveled and if you indexed the tax to the weight rating of the tire you would appropriatly collect tax vs weight of the vehicle and its impact to the pavement life.

    Gas, hybrid, all electric all pay equally for their direct usage.

  8. For now, the gas tax is the best way of collecting fees from drivers, as it taxes people on how much they drive, and to lesser extent how much road space they occupy (as bigger vehicles get worse gas mileage). A lump-sum VMT would be terribly unpopular (as are lump-sum car taxes), so some kind of electronic technology that allows monthly or weekly reporting will need to be built into vehicles before a VMT is feasible. I wouldn’t support GPS trackers to do the job because they strike me as ripe for abuse. Tolling the entire Interstate system is another way to raise revenue, but doing that would require major investment across the country to add the necessary structures.

  9. I used to like Ken Orski’s newsletter, but now I just scan it, because it has become a regular soapbox to bash high speed rail, and this administration in general. And his post above perfectly captures that.

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