WASHINGTON — House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster told executives of state departments of transportation he hopes Congress can pass major new infrastructure investment legislation before its long August recess, or perhaps in a lame-duck session after the November elections.
Shuster made the remarks at the annual Washington Briefing of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
A day before Shuster’s comment, a Republican from Pennsylvania, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the assistant majority leader, told Bloomberg News that with a busy Senate legislative calendar, “I don't know if we will have time” to push through an infrastructure package this year.
But Shuster, in remarks to the AASHTO conference and to reporters afterward, emphasized that Congress needs to put together legislation that invests in projects and raises new revenue to bolster the Highway Trust Fund for the long term.
If it does not do so, he warned, state DOTs by early 2020 would be cutting some planned projects for lack of federal dollars.
He made clear that he would work with Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., on a bipartisan plan that would be paid for with new funds and would take care of the trust fund's future needs.
Shuster made the case for increasing the federal motor fuel “user fee” or excise tax, as an easily understood way to efficiently raise more road and transit funds. “It's the easiest thing to understand,” he said.
And he urged the state officials in their visits to Congressional offices to help build support for revenue increases that can sustain the trust fund.
Noting that some advocate for implementing taxes on vehicle miles traveled instead of hiking fuel user charges, Shuster said “I don't believe that's ready for prime time,” although the next generation of leaders would probably move to implement one.
In separate remarks to the AASHTO conference, DeFazio said that without a strong presidential effort on increasing revenue there would be no infrastructure investment plan to pass Congress this year.
He said House leadership currently opposes hiking taxes for infrastructure, so no bill could move forward without President Trump pushing for more revenue.
DeFazio also dismissed the president's investment proposal as a “devolution” plan to put more of the federal role back to state and local governments along with private investors.
The leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee told state officials they want to see project investment legislation but indicated they are not yet working together.
EPW Ranking Member Tom Carper, D-Del., said he and Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., are working on their own proposals.
Barrasso told state officials he knew of their concerns about the trust fund, but told reporters that increasing motor fuel taxes would be a “nonstarter” for him.
In a statement the next day, Barrasso noted that Environment and Public Works leaders and members are working together on bipartisan water projects legislation. Then he added: “We need to expand that bipartisan cooperation to roads and bridges as well.”