Congress has until this May to pass some kind of Highway Bill, since the current Highway Bill—known as MAP-21—expires that month, and since early in an election cycle, rather than later, provides a better opportunity for passing controversial legislation, the wheels are already turning. Estimates are that the staff of the Senate’s Environment & Public Works Committee—which is in charge of setting infrastructure priorities—will have a draft bill to deliver to that Committee by the end of January. The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee does not plan to take up legislation quite that quickly, but the estimates we have heard suggest it will “by early spring.”
FRA and other truck-weight reform advocates are urging both of these Committees to consider the importance of the Department of Transportation’s Truck Size & Weight Study to a full consideration of a new Highway Bill. But that study—which was due to report last November—has still not been released. Although we do not know the reasons for the delay, the explanation we have had from the study’s administrators is that DOT has determined a more thorough review is needed to document and support all conclusions.
The main point of controversy surrounding the Highway Bill, in any case, is not truck weight reform but revenue: whether and how to increase the fuel tax. The political and trade press regularly report additional Republicans willing to “consider,” if not “support,” closing the Highway Trust Fund gap through some increase in both the federal gas and diesel taxes. However, there is still plenty of push-back against an increase—from Americans for Tax Reform, for instance, and most recently from House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin)—in spite of steady expressions of willingness to absorb an increase from truckers and at least some shippers.
A January 14 editorial from the Wall Street Journal goes a step further: “Abolish the Gas Tax.” The editorial board urges Congress to do away with federal fuel taxes altogether, on several grounds:
- there is too much diversion from the Highway Trust Fund to unrelated projects (such as urban transit subsidies);
- the accounts of a “crumbling infrastructure” are exaggerated;
- current policy is regressive, diverting funds from poorer to wealthier states;
- that devolving both tax collection and infrastructure support to the states would align revenues with actual priorities more effectively; and
- BONUS: state-administered contracts would free contractors from the uncompetitive Davis-Bacon “prevailing wage” rules in bidding for work.