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ATA again calls for fuel tax increase to pay for highways; Congress has other plans

Congress faces many challenges this year, but finding a way to sustain the Highway Trust Fund should be “at the top of that list,” says the American Trucking Assns. Along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AAA, ATA on Monday wrote the new Congress pledging support in the effort to “to fully fund the roads and bridges that are the backbone of American mobility and competitiveness.” But the groups’ proposed solution – an increase in the federal tax on gasoline and diesel – faces opposition from several key Republicans and comes as the Obama administration continues to push its plan for corporate tax reform to plug the highway funding gap.

The current federal surface transportation spending plan, extended twice since its original expiration date last fall, is set to run out in May.

“Americans are frustrated with our nation's crumbling infrastructure, including increasingly congested highways and deficient roads and bridges. Thirty-two percent of major roads are in poor or mediocre condition,” the letter reads. “Fortunately, there is a simple solution to address this issue in the near-term: raise the federal fuels user fee, provided the funds are used to ease congestion and improve safety.”

Noting the impact of insufficient funding “is evident” in the “crumbling infrastructure” – 32% of major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, meaning the average driver pays $324 a year in vehicle repairs and operating costs, while Interstate congestion results in the 141 million hours of wasted time for truckers – the letter goes on to tout an infographic designed to serve as “a primer for lawmakers and the general public” as Congress considers the funding of roads and bridges.

Among the key points addressed in both the letter and the explanatory graphic, ATA points out that the last increase to the federal user fee for gasoline was 1993. 

“Since then, inflation, increased fuel economy, and rising costs associated with labor and construction, have eroded the user fee's purchasing power,” the letter says. “Congress must act to provide a reliable revenue stream to support jobs, address maintenance needs and provide Americans with a safe and efficient transportation system.”

Indeed, Congress has patched the Highway Trust Fund five times since 2008, making up for shortfalls with $64.1 billion in “borrowed money,” as policy makers continue “to kick the can further down the road,” ATA says.

The good news for those looking for a multi-year transportation plan is that the Republican leadership in Congress has expressed a willingness to work with the Democrats on Capitol Hill and the one in the White House on a solution. However, a fuel tax increase won't be it.

On “60 Minutes” Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner noted that a number of Obama initiatives are “dead” in the Republican-controlled Congress, but that infrastructure funding is one area of common ground. However, he also dismissed the suggestion that a fuel tax increase would be the simple solution, noting that as recently as 2009 Democrats had declined to raise the tax when they had majorities in both the House and Senate, along with a Democratic administration.

"We believe that through tax reform, a couple of other options that are being looked at, we can find the funds to fund a long-term highway bill. It's critically important to the country," Boehner said.

A revision of the tax code, however, could be a long and complicated process – especially with more conservative Tea Party Republicans calling for more substantial changes than the so-called “repatriation” of corporate profits sheltered overseas, Washington watchers suggest.

The Senate will take up the matter on Wednesday, with a hearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee. Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx will testify, to be followed by a panel of state governors.

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