Kennedy, Oberstar Lead Dueling Visions for Transportation Bill

Mon February 02, 2004 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) The six-year, $375 billion transportation bill making its way through the House offers two visions of how to fund the nation’s highway and transit needs, and lawmakers from the Upper Midwest are playing leading roles in the debate.

Backing the more establishment route of using gasoline taxes are Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, and Wisconsin Republican Tom Petri, who chairs the panel’s subcommittee on highways, transit and pipelines.

The two veteran lawmakers, with more than a half-century of congressional experience between then, advocate a 5 cent increase in the gas tax to pay for upgrades in the nation’s roads and transit systems. The committee chairman, Alaska Republican Don Young, also supports a gas tax increase.

But Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Minnesota Republican in just his fourth year in Congress, has gained momentum for his more unorthodox solution: allowing states to erect tolls on interstate highways to fund construction of new optional "FAST" lanes.

House leaders asked Young to postpone a committee vote scheduled for Feb. 4, to give them time to come up with other funding sources for the bill, Young spokesman Steve Hansen said. The current transportation bill, passed in 1998, expires Feb. 29.

John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-IL, said Hastert opposes a gas tax increase and is trying to get the numbers to work.

Oberstar said that the GOP leadership is caught in a "crossfire" of the House Transportation Committee’s $375 billion proposal, the White House’s $247 billion plan, and the Senate plan of $311 billion.

"The House Republican leadership does not want to let the committee bring to the floor a bill at odds with the administration," Oberstar said. "So Chairman Young has really stuck his neck out. He’s been a consistent unabashed advocate of increased investment.’

Petri and Oberstar note that the gas tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, has not increased since 1993, which translates to an actual reduction when adjusted for inflation. The gas tax is paid into the highway trust fund, which pays for highway projects.

"We’re trying to restore purchasing power of the highway trust fund," said Petri. "If we continue to erode the purchasing power of the trust fund, we will fall short. The result is we will sit in traffic, and we’ll face higher prices [for goods and services] due to lower efficiency."

Kennedy’s bill would repeal a federal ban on interstate highway tolls, allowing states to charge people who want to use the new lanes. The legislation requires tolls to use non-cash electronic technology –– such as a sensor that would read a device from inside a person’s car. The tolls would end when the lanes are paid for.

Kennedy’s bill and a gas tax increase are not mutually exclusive, and Petri said the emerging highway bill might include a pilot program that incorporates Kennedy’s bill in certain areas.

But Kennedy said he didn’t see any way a gas tax increase would be signed into law.

"You really think this president is going to increase taxes?" he asked. "I would suggest that history would be a guide to inform you that he won’t. I don’t think we’re going to be voting on a gasoline tax increase."

Kennedy, a member of the Transportation Committee, suggested that opposition to his plan stemmed from a desire to guard political turf.

"The only people that I’ve found against it are the select people who have seniority on the committee that don’t want to give up the power to allocate road funds," he said.

Oberstar countered: "He’s never said that to me, and I won’t respond to that."

Oberstar said he was wary of tolling as a funding option.

"Tolls are no substitute for sustainable investment, and for the dedicated revenue stream out of the highway trust fund, which is the most proven funding mechanism in the federal government," he said.

Committee Chairman Young is also unenthusiastic about Kennedy’s legislation, although he could see it being a small component of the overall bill, spokesman Hansen said.

"Tolling is one of the least popular ways to raise revenue for roads and bridges," Hansen said. "People who are subject to tolling would rather pay a little more at the pump than go through the entire process that tolling encompasses. If you had a national highway system set up on tolling you’d never get anywhere."

But Kennedy points to a recent Star Tribune poll which found that 69 percent of Minnesota adults support paying for new highway lanes with tolls paid for by drivers who use them, while only 23 percent supported increasing the gas tax to build new lanes.[That poll asked residents about a state plan, not a nationwide one.]

"No one has to pay for the FAST lanes; they choose to pay," he said.

Kennedy does agree with committee leaders that the nation will need to spend close to $375 billion on transportation projects over the next six years, far more than the White House’s $247 billion proposal. He said there are ways to make up the difference.