The Senate Finance committee held the latest hearing on the highway bill road to nowhere Thursday, and the mile-markers were familiar:
- Calls for bipartisanship from committee leaders, then political finger pointing, check.
- A passionate plea for an increase in the federal fuels tax, followed by a blanket dismissal from a key Senator, check.
- A token appearance by a witness urging Congress to drastically cut the gas tax and hand over responsibility for transportation projects to the states, which no one on the committee takes seriously, check.
- Invocation of the economic threat posed by potholes and China and a pro-tax quote from conservative exemplar Ronald Reagan, check.
- A federal budget expert explaining precisely how unsustainable the highway trust fund is, then …
Still, when all was said and done, Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) pledged to find a solution, though he didn’t hint at what that solution might be.
“All I can say is this: As chairman of this committee I intend to solve this problem. It’s almost insoluble under current circumstances,” Hatch said. “I can hopefully solve it on a multi-year basis, and if I can't solve it on long-term basis, I’ll see what I can do.”
That came two hours after Hatch opened the hearing by sharply criticizing Senate Democrats who posed in a press event Tuesday to demand action on six-year highway bill. The veteran Republican declined to let the minority party dictate his calendar, and he dismissed their plea for its lack of policy proposals.
“My hope is that we can focus on solutions that could actually work, that can actually be enacted into law and pay for highways,” Hatch said. “For example, while I know the idea has some support, I don’t think a massive increase in the gas tax could be enacted into law. Of course, anybody who believes otherwise is free to publicly correct me and if that’s the type of discussion I want to have here today—one that will actually lead to solutions.”
And that’s exactly what Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman and transportation secretary in the Obama administration, came to argue. While he welcomed a range of funding sources, including tolls and public-private partnerships, the real solution remains an increase in the tax on gasoline and diesel that hasn’t been raised in more than 20 years.
“We should look for many options, but if you want to create an opportunity to rebuild America, we need a big pot of money—the same big pot of money that built American over the last 50 years,” LaHood said. “And that’s the highway trust fund. We have to come to grips with the idea: We have to raise the gas tax. Everything’s gone up except the gas tax, except the pot of money that funds infrastructure.”
The House held a hearing on paying for roads and bridges Wednesday.