On Wednesday, November 28, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing titled, “Addressing America’s Surface Transportation Need.” EPW Committee members heard from a panel of witnesses representing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Associated General Contractors of America and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, who emphasized the importance of engaging state and local governments early in the decision-making process for federal transportation and infrastructure projects.
Throughout the hearing, Senators and panelists agreed on the necessity of an adequately funded, long-term surface transportation bill, including ensuring the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). There were, however, disagreements over how to secure funding to support these significant infrastructure updates across the country, as witnesses encouraged Congress to consider raising the federal motor fuel tax, otherwise known as the gas tax.
In 1956, Congress passed the Highway Revenue Act that established the HTF as means of funding the expansion of the federal highway program. The gas tax is the main source of revenue for the HTF, and it has not been increased in the last 25 years, with fixed rates of 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel since 1993. Legislation that would raise the tax has come and gone before Congress over the six decades since the fund’s creation, though political pressure has historically rendered passing such a hike difficult. In addition, since the HTF is not indexed for inflation, its value has decreased over time, with data showing a 40 percent decline since 1993.
Encouragingly, members of both parties have signaled openness to raising the gas tax next year. Earlier this year, President Trump signaled potential support for increasing the gas tax by 25 cents, and EPW Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del) reiterated an interest in this solution during the recent hearing. Incoming House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has also publicly supported a gas tax increase, and bipartisan support for raising the gas tax has led many stakeholders to believe infrastructure legislation could move in the divided 116th Congress.
Counties know the importance of a solvent HTF and support the increase and indexing of the federal gas tax to meet current and future highway and transit funding needs, provided that the additional revenue be dedicated to highway, bridge and transit programs. Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) emphasized this important caveat during the hearing, citing the importance of restricting the HTF to only its intended uses.
While much of the hearing focused on the solvency of the HTF, streamlining of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process was also mentioned as an important component of future infrastructure efforts. Counties also support efforts by Congress and the administration to streamline the administrative requirements in order to direct more funding toward infrastructure improvement.
NACo will continue working with Congress and the administration to ensure the important role of counties in transportation and infrastructure development is considered and supported in any future legislation.