HARRISBURG, Pa. — U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, a Republican from outside Altoona, will become the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a powerful position that could put Pennsylvania's interests out front in federal highway spending and policy.
The committee also deals with legislation covering pipelines, ports, river barges, mass transit and rail, all issues that are of prime importance in Pennsylvania, a state whose infrastructure is aging.
Perhaps Shuster's biggest challenge will be to figure out how to find more money for a six-year highway funding bill when the trust fund is virtually empty.
"The $500 billion or $600 billion question is how do you pay for it?" Shuster told reporters Wednesday after the House Republican conference voted to name Shuster and other committee chairmen for the 2013-14 session beginning in January.
No Pennsylvania House member currently chairs a full committee, and Shuster's elevation gives Pennsylvania its most influential voice in the U.S. House since Jack Murtha died in 2010.
Shuster currently chairs the subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. Shuster's father, Bud, chaired the transportation committee from 1995 to 2001, and was well known for ensuring that Pennsylvania received substantially more in federal highway funding than it sent to Washington in gas taxes.
That premium has all but disappeared, as have the earmarks that members of Congress were able to win to direct toward favored highway or bridge projects. Still, Shuster's position is important for the state.
"You will find that wielding the gavel generally winds up helping the home state of the chair," said John Horsely, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Shuster, 52, won election earlier this month to a seventh term representing the 9th Congressional District stretching from south-central to southwestern Pennsylvania. He is passionate about transportation policy, and fluent in the issues, perhaps helping him to leap over eight more senior Republicans, by his count, on the committee to win the chairmanship.
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Barry Schoch, Pennsylvania's transportation secretary, said Shuster has energy and character and the ability to communicate effectively and build consensus.
Asked about how he'll find more money to fund highway construction, Shuster would not say Wednesday whether he would seek an increase in the federal gas tax. It has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon for two decades as the price of diesel, asphalt and steel mill products have grown enormously and vehicles travel farther on fewer gallons of gas.
This year's two-year federal highway funding bill also gave states more flexibility in using the money, and loosened some rules around tolling on interstates and bridges. All could help Pennsylvania as Gov. Tom Corbett looks for ways to boost spending on the state's crumbling network for highways, bridges and mass transit without raising taxes or fees that fall most heavily on Pennsylvanians.
Schoch said he would like to see the trend toward tolling and flexibility continue, and Shuster said he would press to help states save money by streamlining regulations so they can carry out projects faster.
Of prime importance is the need to rebuild heavily traveled portion of Interstate 95 around Philadelphia, Schoch and Shuster said. Shuster also noted that it will take $3 billion to rebuild three Pittsburgh-area locks that are in dire need of improvement and are crucial to shipping.
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