Senate Tax Panel Leaders Craft Bipartisan Highway-Mass Transit Bill

 WASHINGTON (PAI)–Leaders of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, which would decide whether to raise the federal gas tax for the first time in two decades to help pay for the nation’s roads, buses and subways, drafted a bipartisan temporary highway-mass transit bill on July 10.  But they kept the gas tax, for cars at least, at 18.4 cents a gallon.


            Union leaders had no immediate reaction to the decision by Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and top Republican Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to patch together $749 million worth of money to fund road, bus and subway projects through the end of this calendar year.


            But Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind, appearing with Democratic President Barack Obama the week before to urge action on a long-term highway-mass transit bill, welcomed Wyden’s activism.  Lack of revenue for highway and mass transit projects endangers at least 700,000 construction jobs, union leaders and Obama officials say.


            “Without action by Congress, the Highway Trust Fund will become insolvent and thus unable to finance investments in transit systems, roads, bridges and highway safety.  Why?” Wytkind asked then.  “Policy makers have for years failed to fix a financing system that is simply broken and now the trust fund will run out of money in a few short weeks.


            “If we let this happen, transportation construction projects that support thousands of good jobs will be put on hold, local transit services could be cut and long overdue upgrades in commuter rail will be further delayed. In this still fragile economy, self-inflicted wounds are the last thing we need.  Yet this seems to be the path some Tea Party stalwarts want to pursue.


            “Wyden has been more than willing to work with his Republican colleagues to find a solution to this avoidable crisis.  But to no one’s surprise, cooperation from key Republican leaders has been a little hard – OK, very hard – to find.  That needs to change soon,” he said. 


            Otherwise, lawmakers must “tell thousands of unemployed transportation and construction workers why their political agenda is more important than good, middle-class jobs and a functioning transportation system.”


            Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan sounded those  themes the week before.  “While there appears to be movement on ensuring the Highway Trust fund does not go bankrupt by the end of summer, Congress has no valid excuses to not act on a long-term plan,” he said.


            “There are multiple viable options which would end the duct-taping of our failing roads and bridges and provide the long-term investment our nation, our people and our economy needs.  If Congress fails, it will be due to cowardice in standing up to extremists willing to destroy critical transportation infrastructure to make an ideological political point.”

 “Our failing transportation infrastructure does not discriminate by political party -– we are all affected. We should be able to expect a bipartisan solution,” he declared.

O’Sullivan has been an outspoken advocate of congressional proposals to raise the gas tax by 12 cents-15 cents a gallon over the next several years, with the funds dedicated to highways and mass transit.  But the Obama administration does not support the tax hike, and neither did the Finance panel.

            The Wyden-Hatch proposal transfers $7.824 billion in general tax dollars and $2 billion from specialized fees – half of that from money set aside to clean up underground storage tanks that leak toxic chemicals – to the highway-mass transit trust fund over the next decade.  Of that, $746 million would be available immediately.  The general fund money would go for highways and the $2 billion from the other sources would go for transit.

            Besides general tax dollars, Congress would cobble together the money from a wide range of technical tax changes.

            “Allowing the Highway Trust Fund to go insolvent next month, clogging the roads Americans use every day and costing us hundreds of thousands of jobs, would be legislative malpractice and I’m not willing to let that happen,” Wyden said.  “Sen. Hatch and I were able to compromise on a solution and deliver a true bipartisan path forward.  At the same time we must push forward to define a sustainable, long term plan to modernize our infrastructure.”

            Hatch said their bill “addresses the immediate needs of the highway trust fund…I am committed to addressing the chronic underfunding of the highway trust fund for the long-term.”