Senate EPW Discusses Forthcoming Highway Reauthorization

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing this week to reinforce the need for a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill – the precise kind of bill that the panel hopes to approve by the end of this month.

Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) has said repeatedly that he wants his committee to mark up and report the highway title of a surface bill to the Senate before leaving for the August recess, and said at the hearing that he wants it to be the “most substantial, bipartisan highway bill ever.” ETW had been hearing rumors of a July 31 markup date, but that target has now apparently moved to August 1. This makes a difference – under rule 4 of the committee rules, bill text has to be released no later than 72 hours before a markup, but if the 72 hour point happens over a weekend, the bill text has to be released by close of business on Friday.

July 31 is a Wednesday, so bill text for a July 31 markup would have to be released by close of business on Friday, July 26. But August 1 is a Thursday, so bill text wouldn’t have to be released until the morning of Monday, July 29.

At the July 10 hearing, the EPW panel heard from five witnesses:

  • The director of chairman Barrasso’s home state DOT, Luke Reiner (written testimony here).
  • The former director of ranking minority member Tom Carper’s (D-DE) home state DOT, Carolann Wicks (written testimony here).
  • Representing the association of state DOTs, Utah state DOT director Carlos Braceras (written testimony here).
  • Representing the Associated General Contractors, Max Kuney (written testimony here).
  • Head of the Georgetown Climate Center, Vicki Arroyo (written testimony here).

Video of the hearing can be viewed here.

All of the witnesses save Arroyo emphasized many of the same basic points: a reauthorization bill should be enacted on time (no short-term extensions), it should last as long as possible (since multi-year funding certainty makes it possible for states to build larger projects and fund them more efficiently), the bill should provide even more regulatory flexibility for states to plan their projects and spend their money more easily, and the scheduled $7.6 billion rescission of highway contract authority that will take place on July 1, 2020 should be canceled.

Of course, the fact that the FAST Act (the last multi-year surface transportation authorization, enacted in December 2015) is set to expire on September 30, 2020 – a date that is just five weeks before a Presidential election – bodes poorly for the on-time enactment of a bill next year, but Barrasso and Carper are all about optimism.

Revenue needs. The elephant in the room where any surface reauthorization bill is being discussed is the need for additional tax revenue to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent after 2021 (which is under the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction, not Environment and Public Works). While AASHTO has not taken a formal position on a federal fuel tax increase (they may take a position after their annual meeting this fall), Braceras did note that Utah increased its gas tax in 2015 and indexed it to inflation, and Kuney reiterated AGC’s endorsement of a 25 cent per gallon increase. Wicks instead discussed the I-95 Corridor Coalition’s Mileage Based User Fee (MBUF) project. Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) bemoaned the fact that the citizens of his state “want better roads and bridges but don’t want to pay” and said he supports making the HTF solvent again using actual user taxes or fees, not more general fund bailouts. Regarding new revenues, Carper said there was no “silver bullet” but there were a lot of “silver BBs.”

Need for a long-term bill. After the witnesses gave their opening statements, chairman Barrasso led off by asking what the effects on states would be if, instead of enacting a multi-year authorization, Congress kept passing short-term funding extensions. Wicks said it would be extremely disruptive to programs, that engineering projects takes time, and that it has a negative psychological effect on state DOT staff. Braceras made two points: (1) As a public official, he said he works on trust, and that means putting realistic federal funding estimates in the state’s long-term spending plans, and he is currently being forced to put flat-lined federal funding in his plan past the end of the FAST Act, and (2) Braceras said a long-term funding bill would give greater value to Congress’s investment because it is easier to get competition from contractors. Reiner said the result of short-term extensions will be smaller projects, with larger and more expensive projects being deferred.

Tolling. Carper led off his questioning to get Wicks to talk about Delaware’s adventures in tolling the rebuilt U.S. 301, using 40-year revenue bonds and building toll gantries to register EZ-passes and take photos of the license plates of non-EZ-pass motorists. Later, in response to a different question, Braceras said that if the federal government is going to levy tolls itself, it needs to toll an entire system, not just segments thereof.

Electric vehicles. Braceras talked about how, starting in January 2020, Utah will allow EV owners to choose from either paying an annual registration fee for their road use or else participating in a mileage-based pilot program that will cap the amount of their annual mileage payment at the registration fee amount.

Climate change. The fact that the hearing took place just 48 hours after the ridiculous, monsoon-level rains caused major flooding in the Washington DC area put a surprisingly high percentage of the questions in Arroyo’s wheelhouse – not just questions from the usual suspects on these issues (Ed Markey (D-MA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), but also from John Boozman (R-AR). Arroyo talked extensively about the need to de-carbonize the nation’s transportation systems (not just personal cars but trucks and buses as well). This dovetailed with the announcement by Markey and Carper that they had, that day, introduced the GREEN Streets Act (S. 2084) that would re-establish a national performance measure for highway-related greenhouse gas emissions (a GHG measure was not specifically authorized by Congress in the MAP-21 law that established national performance measures, and while the Obama Administration tried to create one administratively, that move was overturned under the Trump Administration) and would also require all new projects to be rated on the effect they will have on reducing per capita GHG emissions and VMT. (Markey also that day introduced a bill requiring states to set aside 5 percent of their highway apportionments for “complete streets” programs.)

Arroyo endorsed both proposals, as well as another Markey bill from last Congress that encourages states to fund more evacuation routes in times of severe weather. Carper later asked Arroyo how the forthcoming transportation bill could reduce emissions from single-occupancy internal combustion vehicles, and Arroyo talked of the need to send pricing signals (hypothetical tolls that have a higher rate on single-occupancy ICE cars, for example), especially if the proceeds of those tolls or fees are used to develop zero-emission vehicles and charging infrastructure. (That infrastructure, and the need for Congress to fund it, was a big part of Arroyo’s testimony.)

Large animals. Barrasso and Braceras had an interesting discussion of the need to make sure that big game animals can cross roads safely. Braceras was able to describe in detail the new wildlife bridge over Interstate 80 and how the live webcams of the bridge prove that it is working.

Formula funding. The witnesses associated with state DOTs made the point repeatedly that their idea of a good bill is one that distributes as much funding as possible to states via formula, as opposed to “allocated” programs where USDOT picks projects. Barrasso echoed this in his opening statement. No one mentioned the ugly fact that that the current formulas are stuck in time – through 2020, each state is guaranteed the same percentage share of total formula funding they received in fiscal 2009 (save for adjustments to keep Texas at a 95 percent rate of return on Highway Account tax payments), and that funding used real-world apportionment factors like lane-miles, population, VMT, bridge upgrade costs, and local air quality from the year 2007. No attempt has been made to update those formulas since then, and it is unclear if the forthcoming Barrasso-Carper bill will address the issue.

Continuing to use the FY 2009 apportionments to determine how much money each state gets 10 to 15 years later is particularly nonsensical because those 2009 shares also include the earmarks that each state’s Congressional delegation managed to get in the summer 2005 SAFETEA-LU pork barrel bonanza. (Alaska is still reaping the rewards of Don Young (R-AK) getting the Bridge to Nowhere and Knik Arm earmarks, California is still getting rewarded for Bill Thomas’s (R-CA) $750 million take for Greater Bakersfield, and Illinois is still getting rewarded for Denny Hastert’s (R-IL) ill-fated Prairie Parkway, because the dollar amount of those earmarks is now reflected in state highway formula money through 2020.)

For the record, the following chart shows how each state’s fiscal 2009 totals were determined: the green bar is the apportionment from factor-based formulas, the red bar is a state’s take of FY 2009 funding under the Equity Bonus program (which got donor states to a 92 percent rate of return on their Highway Account tax payments and also guaranteed 21 special states the same percentage share they got under TEA21 and guaranteed all states at least 121 percent of the dollar amount they got under TEA21, on average). And the black bar is the earmarks.

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