Paying the Way
Working toward a long-term financing plan for our roads
By Mindy Long
Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) is one of the top lawmakers advancing transportation issues on Capitol Hill. He currently serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, where he served as chairman for 12 years. Rep. Petri is working closely with his colleagues to shape highway funding legislation. He shared his insights with Road King.
Q Congress has been working on the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012. What are you most proud of in the bill?
A There are many aspects of the bill that are positive. I am glad that we have a five-year bill because states need certainty to do long-term planning for efficiently managed major projects. There are provisions in the bill that will streamline the project approval process, reducing the time it takes to do major projects, some of which can take 14 years or more to get underway. The streamlining is overdue.
But that being said, I voted against the bill in committee because Wisconsin would see a significant cut in funding. Our share of the program would drop 10 percent. This is supposed to be a Republican jobs bill, but my state would actually lose jobs.
Q What role do tolls play in financing the nation’s infrastructure needs?
A Tolls may have a role to play in building new roads, especially since we are not investing adequate resources. But tolls are not the be-all and end-all for the program. They may make sense in some areas and not in others.
My own state of Wisconsin has looked at tolls and concluded that they probably are not a feasible way for us to generate sufficient revenue needed to expand and maintain roads. Tolls could cause truckers to avoid some of the roads most suitable for big vehicles. Diverting trucks from major highways would not be desirable from a safety perspective.
Even if we pass a five-year bill with the Trust Fund supplemented with general funds, it will be a stopgap measure. If we want to continue the user-financed approach that has worked so well over the years, we need to fundamentally reform the way we collect revenues. With ever more efficient cars, including electric vehicles and hybrids, gasoline taxes no longer adequately measure road usage and are unlikely to provide the revenue needed.
Q What are you doing to address fuel prices?
A Since oil is a world commodity, Congress can’t dictate lower prices in the face of disruption in the Middle East and the effects of speculation. Our best option is to increase the supply of fuel in our own country.
With my support, in February the House approved H.R. 3408, the Protecting Investment in Oil Shale, the Next Generation of Environmental, Energy and Resource Security Act, a bill to provide for greater investments in domestic energy resources.
In general, congressional Republicans are eager to take advantage of new technology that has made vast quantities of natural gas and oil in the U.S. economically available. Increasing domestic supplies will lessen OPEC’s ability to keep prices high.
Unfortunately, however, the Obama Administration is hostile to fossil fuels, preferring “green” alternatives, which will compete better in the marketplace if gasoline is selling for $8 a gallon, as it does in Europe. I assume they feel the same way about diesel fuel.
Q How are you protecting drivers from increased business costs?
A Over the years, many of my colleagues and I have fought against unnecessary and burdensome regulations affecting the trucking industry. As the current Administration has proven to be pro-regulation, we will need continued vigilance to be certain that requirements imposed are warranted.
Roads are the workplace of truckers, so they need to be well-maintained and efficient. Congestion and potholes increase the cost of doing business.
Many in the business community and some in the trucking industry have called for an increase in the gas tax — something that won’t happen anytime soon, given the current political climate. So again, we need to fundamentally reform the way we finance our roads in order to put in place a stable and sustainable revenue source that fits today’s world.