By Keith Laing
Congress approved a two-year, $105 billion surface transportation bill last year. The House's original proposal for the measure limited road and transit spending to the approximately $35 billion per year that is brought in by the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, which is the traditional funding source for transportation projects.
Transportation advocates decried the GOP proposal, arguing that the eventual highway bill's $50 billion-plus in spending was barely enough to maintain the current transportation infrastructure and would not improve it.
A subsequent effort in the House to raise more transportation money by increasing offshore oil drilling in the U.S. was scuttled by opposition from Democrats in the Senate, who relied on a package of fee increases and tax loopholes to generate the nearly $20 billion difference between gas tax intake and normal transportation spending.
Shuster has indicated previously that he would consider long-term solutions to the transportation funding problem such as the controversial vehicle-miles-traveled tax, where drivers would pay for the amount of driving they did instead of the amount of gas they buy.
VMT proposals have generated opposition from both conservatives and civil rights groups because of concerns about monitoring systems that would have to be placed on cars to calculate mileage. The recording devices would invade driver's privacy, they argue.
However, Shuster said in his initial public remarks as Transportation Committee chairman that lawmakers may not have a choice but to switch to the electronic method of collecting user fees for transportation.
"Longer term, VMT seems to me to be the only way to stop the decline because we're all going to be driving cars five, 10 years from now that are going 40, 50 miles [per gallon] or more, or maybe not using any gas at all," he said.
In his November comments, Shuster acknowledged funding sources like VMT would be a tough sale politically.
Shuster said then that he has been in rooms where "the most conservative member in our committee and the most liberal member both say 'you're not putting transponders on my car,' so it's going to be a challenge."
Witnesses at Shuster's hearing next Wednesday will include U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, Laborers’ International Union of North America General President Terry O’Sullivan and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who is now co-chairman of an infrastructure group called Building America’s Future.