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Passenger group protests use of custom fees in highway bill

Passenger group protests use of custom fees in highway bill
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A passenger advocacy group is protesting the use of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) fees to pay for a new multiyear highway funding bill that is being worked on by Congress. 

Lawmakers have tapped about $4 billion in custom fees for recent temporary transportation funding extensions, and they are considering taking another $5.7 billion from the fund to help pay for long-term infrastructure bill. 

The Arlington, Va.-based Travelers United group said Tuesday that custom fees paid by passengers should not be used to prop up other areas of the federal budget, although they support the broader goal of extending the federal government's infrastructure spending. 

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"Consumers have been steadfastly fighting such behavior from airlines with their unjustified ancillary fees, from cruise lines with their attempts to increase unwarranted port fees and from hotels with their hidden mandatory fees that should be part of the room rate," the group wrote in letter to House and Senate negotiators who are working on the highway bill. 

"Now, Congress is taking a page from the same book of deception, by increasing the CBP fees collected for a specific purpose, and then stealing them from the aviation passengers who pay them to fund a completely different function — in this case, the funding of the surface transportation bill," the letter continued. "It is not right and leaves a sour taste in the mouths of consumers across the country." 

Lawmakers had hoped to pass a multiyear highway bill for the first time in a decade this week to prevent an interruption in the nation's road and transit spending that is scheduled to expire on Friday.

Lawmakers have said they need more time finish work on the multiyear highway bill, so they are introducing a temporary extension that includes money that was already taken from the custom fees. 

The travelers' group said Tuesday that lawmakers should look to other areas besides custom fees to pay for the new long-term transportation bill. 

"It would be far better for the integrity of Congress to find ways to fund this bill without robbing the airline consumers who already bear an unfair burden of these CBP fees," the group wrote. 

"Train travelers don’t pay these fees and automobile passengers crossing the borders via highways that the bill is supposed to support, don’t pay these CBP fees," the letter continue. "It simply is not fair to airline consumers to blatantly divert fees collected to improve the CBP programs to other purposes." 

Lawmakers are scrambling to come up with a way to pay for multiyear transportation bill to end of string of more than 35 temporary measures that dates back to 2005. 

They are facing a Friday deadline for renewing federal transportation funding, upping the pressure to find a way new funding mechanisms for infrastructure projects. 

The traditional source of transportation funding has been revenue from the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, though, and has struggled to keep pace with construction costs as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion annually at its current rate. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the $16 billion annual gap, but transportation advocates have argued the resulting temporary patches are preventing states from undertaking badly needed large construction projects. 

Transportation advocates have pushed Congress to increase the gas tax for the first time in two decades to pay for a long-term infrastructure funding extension, but GOP lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump. 

The Department of Transportation has said it will have to begin cutting back on payments to state and local governments unless Congress reaches an agreement on an at least a temporary infrastructure funding extension. 

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion, in addition to the annual gas tax revenue, to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill.