On Transportation Issues, Progress Is Difficult Even Where There Is Genuine Bipartisan Agreement
When the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015, Senator John Thune (R-SD) will take the gavel as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) likely will be the ranking Democrat. (Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has more seniority on the committee than Nelson, but she will remain as ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.)
On the House side, Representative Bill Schuster (R-PA) will continue to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, although the new ranking Democrat will likely be Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), since Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) lost his re-election bid. Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) reportedly may challenge DeFazio for the top spot on the Democratic side, but Democrats generally adhere to seniority in internal committee matters.
While many of the faces in transportation committee leadership positions will be new in January, the issues that they must address are not. The top matters before the committees include reauthorizations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Surface Transportation Board and Amtrak. Also look for the House and Senate committees to spend time on auto safety issues, including the recent airbag recall by major automakers.
Another area of likely focus is the transportation infrastructure bill (e.g., roads, bridges, transit), for which members of both major parties express genuine support because transportation projects create jobs, invigorate communities and aid the economy.
Finding the revenue to pay for the transportation infrastructure bill will be the primary problem. At present, funding for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is set to run out on May 31, 2015. Approximately $6.5 billion is needed to fund highway projects through the end of fiscal year 2015 (Sept. 30, 2015), and another $100 billion is needed to fund a six-year transportation bill, an amount that transportation advocates say is ideal.
The funding shortfall is largely a self-made problem. The Highway Trust Fund receives funds from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and the 24.4 cents-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel. But increased vehicle efficiency and inflation have depleted the fund. Furthermore, while the transportation committees get to write transportation policy bills, it falls to the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees to find the funds to pay for them.
The most obvious method of raising revenue for the HTF to pay for infrastructure is to increase the tax on gas and diesel fuel. The last increase was in 1993 and the political pushback on increasing taxes on anyone who drives is significant. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that Senate and House Republicans—many of whom have made a political career of opposing any tax increase—will vote for such an increase now.
At the end of the day, it is more likely than not that the Congress will find a patchwork of funding sources that allows for a short-term extension of highway projects.