House transportation chair confident about long-term highway bill

Sean McMinn, SHFWire Intern

WASHINGTON — Continuing its sprint from one governing crisis to another, Congress will face the threat of an empty Highway Trust Fund at the end of May.

But this time, there’s hope that maybe — just maybe — lawmakers can agree on a long-term solution.

House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster said Thursday he expects Congress will end the stopgap funding plans that have driventhe Highway Trust Fund for years.

“I feel confident that we will do a long-term bill, a five, six year bill, and find the way to fund it being fiscally responsible,” the Pennsylvania Republican said. “Because both sides of the aisle, both sides of the Capitol and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — everybody’s talking about a long-term bill. “

Congress failed to come up with a long-term funding plan for the Highway Trust Fund last year. The fund, which goes mostly toward highway projects, has been operating with just enough cash to run until May.

Most of the money for the Highway Trust Fund comes from an 18 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which has put the fund on a path to bankruptcy since 2008. Several factors, including the increasing fuel efficiency of Americans’ cars and the failure of the gas tax to keep up with inflation, have made the gas tax an unstable source of money to ensure the fund remains healthy.

Shuster addressed the fund’s problems with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxxat an event sponsored by the National Journal.

Foxx said Congress will likely need to come up with an alternative to raising the gas tax to preserve the Highway Trust Fund.

It would be politically difficult for Republicans in Congress to support an increase in taxes, and the White House has also been reluctant to embrace the gas tax plan.

“The sense I get is that the gas tax increase is not a viable political strategy. Period,” Foxx said. “Maybe there will be an opening at some point where that comes up, but it will have to come up out of Congress. And I just don’t know if it will.”

Having Foxx and Shuster on stage together was a rare moment of bipartisanship in the usually contentious relationship between Congress and the White House. The Cabinet-level Democrat and Republican committee chair each acknowledged a sense of respect for his counterpart, and both pointed to transportation as a uniquely bipartisan issue.

But even though the two say they are willing to work together to come up with a long-term solution for the fund — and not just another temporary funding bill — it won’t come without some political tension.

Asked what congressional Republicans would think about Foxx’s plan to bolster the fund, which would involve a one-time 14 percent tax on some overseas earnings, Shuster didn’t leave much room for negotiation.

“Uh, probably doesn’t happen with our guys,” he said.

Reach reporter Sean McMinn at [email protected] or 202-408-1488.