Dem senator slams ‘irresponsible’ $305B highway bill
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) criticized a $305 billion highway bill that was announced by lawmakers on Tuesday because it does not raise gas taxes to help pay for transportation projects.
The 1,300 page measure, which was unveiled days before a Friday deadline for renewing infrastructure funding, includes approximately $70 billion in revenue from areas other than the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax that is traditionally used to pay for transportation projects.
Carper, who has introduced legislation to nearly double the gas tax, said Tuesday that he will not vote for the plan to tap other areas of federal spending to raise revenue for transportation projects.
“As a strong supporter of investment in our nation’s transportation systems, I deeply regret that I cannot support the final transportation conference report,” Carper said in a statement.
“While the proposal includes some good transportation policies, the way the bill is paid for is simply irresponsible,” he continued. “Rather than leading, Congress is passing the buck by using a grab bag of budget gimmicks and poaching revenues from unrelated programs for years to come in order to pay for today’s transportation needs.”
The compromise highway bill, which comes as lawmakers are scrambling to beat a Dec. 4 deadline, relies largely on revenue from reducing interest rates paid by the Federal Reserve to large banks, selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that is used to prevent energy crises and increasing fees for customs processing.
The funding will be used to offset a transfer of about $70 billion into the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund to close a gap that is estimated to be approximately $16 billion a year until 2020.
Backers of the deal said Tuesday that the agreement “provides long-term certainty for states and local governments, and good reforms and improvements to the programs that sustain our roads, bridges, transit, and passenger rail system.”
“This legislation is a vital investment in our country. A safe, efficient surface transportation network is fundamentally necessary to our quality of life and our economy,” Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Reps. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said in a joint statement.
“We knew that reaching an agreement on this measure would be challenging, but every member of the conference committee was certainly up to the task,” the lawmakers continued. “We appreciate their hard work in this effort, and we look forward to moving this measure forward and getting it signed into law.”
Carper said Tuesday afternoon that the plan to tap other areas of the federal budget instead of increasing the gas tax “sets bad transportation policy that undermines the user-pays principle, which has been the bedrock of investment in our nation’s highway and transit systems for more than half a century.
“This bill sets a terrible precedent,” he said of the bill. “And it sets bad fiscal policy that will actually increase our deficit in the long run. Congress has missed an opportunity to pay for this bill honestly by raising transportation user fees, simply because we lack the courage to ask those who use our nation’s transportation system to pay a little more for its upkeep and expansion.”
The proposal that was unveiled on Tuesday calls for taking $53.3 billion from the surplus of the Federal Reserve bank and $6.9 billion reducing the dividends that are paid to banks who are members of the Fed. Other funding sources in the measure include $6.2 billion from the sales of reserved oil, $5.188 billion from customs fees, and $2.4 billion from a move to require the IRS to use private tax collection companies.
Congress has been grappling with the transportation funding shortfall since 2005, and they have not passed an infrastructure funding bill that lasts longer than two years during that span.
The main source of transportation funding for decades has been revenue that is collected by the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and more fuel-efficient cars have sapped its buying power.
The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in approximately $34 billion annually.
Transportation advocates have pushed for a gas tax increase to pay for a long-term transportation bill, but Republican leaders have ruled out a tax hike.
Congressional budget scorekeepers have estimated it would have taken about $100 billion, in addition to the gas tax revenue, to fully pay for a six-year transportation bill, which was the length that was originally sought by transportation advocates.