Finding the Way
Improving roads without raising fuel taxes
Rep. Tom Petri has been representing Wisconsin in Congress since 1979. In addition to his role on the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, he is the Ranking Republican on the Aviation Subcommittee and a member of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. A persistent foe of government waste, he has regularly earned high marks from the National Taxpayers Union, the Concord Coalition, Citizens Against Government Waste and the Watchdogs of the Treasury.
Q What are your top priorities in ensuring the solvency of our national transportation system as you work on the next highway funding bill?
A There is no question that our infrastructure is deteriorating at an alarming rate. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ report card gave America’s infrastructure a shockingly low grade of ‘D’ and estimated that our five-year investment need is a walloping $2.2 trillion.
The Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission determined that all levels of government must spend at least $225 billion annually for the next 50 years on our highways, bridges and transit systems. Yet, we are only spending $87 billion annually.
The real problem is that no one wants to pay for the necessary improvements. One of the great successes of the federal highway program has been that it was designed as a user-fee program where users pay through fuel taxes. The fuel tax has lost more than 33 percent of its purchasing power since it was last increased in 1993. Given the current economic and political situation, it is not an opportune time to increase the tax and it has pretty much been taken off the table for the rest of this Congress.
The Administration and Congress at some point will have to agree to address the issue without political gamesmanship. Of course, the fuel tax is quickly becoming obsolete, and we need to focus on new, reliable sources of funding for the future.
Q What role do you see tolls and the private sector playing in highway funding?
A Tolls and the private sector have a place in the future of highway funding, but I am particularly interested in a system to replace the obsolete fuel tax that continues that user-fee system. A vehicle-miles-traveled fee has received much attention lately. The state of Oregon has had a successful pilot program that demonstrates that it would be possible to implement a system and phase out the fuel tax altogether. I am told the technology exists, but putting a new program in place is a matter of political will and public acceptance.
Q As you move forward on the highway bill, how will you protect the interests of professional truckers from increases in their costs of doing business, specifically tolls and taxes?
A Truckers need efficient, well-maintained roads to do their job. Every day they see the condition of the roads and experience congestion that delays their deliveries and increases costs. For the first time I can remember, many truckers are actually supporting an increase in the fuel tax.
However, there is concern out there about tolls and public private partnerships (PPPs). When I was chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, we held numerous hearings on PPPs and tolling to explore the benefits and the potential pitfalls of these financing arrangements. A 2008 report by the General Accountability Office found that there are potential benefits but also potential costs and trade-offs. It found that tolls on privately operated highways are likely to increase to a greater extent than they would on publicly operated toll roads.
There may be a limited place for these types of arrangements, but I continue to favor investing in our system upfront rather than selling off our assets to foreign companies.
Q Are there ways Congress can streamline transportation projects so drivers see the effect of highway infrastructure projects sooner?
A We need to balance the need for environmental review and public involvement with moving projects forward in a timely, cost-efficient way. A member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission testified before the Committee in 2008 that, by adding even one federal dollar to a project, you are adding 14 years to the overall project delivery time. This is unacceptable, and accelerating project delivery and streamlining must continue to be a priority.
The draft bill released by the Committee restructures key functions and offices within the Department of Transportation to eliminate duplication of efforts and institute reforms and efficiencies. Duplicative paperwork and review only delays needed projects and leads to increased costs.