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Sen. James Inhofe (R) has been representing Oklahoma in the Senate since 1994. Prior to serving on Capitol Hill, the native Oklahoman served in the U.S. Army and was a small businessman working in aviation, real estate and insurance for more than 30 years. His current role as ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee makes him one of the most influential lawmakers shaping transportation legislation.
Q How are you working to protect the role of professional truckers?
A The reliable and free-flowing movement of goods on our nation’s highways, in my opinion, is of the strongest federal interest. There is no more important role of federal government as it relates to transportation than to address the needs that affect the vitality of our interstate commerce, and our economy as a whole. It is critical that we explore the ideas of a new national freight movement program. It is time for a new vision on how we address the exponential growth of goods movement, and I think it is time to seriously consider a separate program dedicated to freight.
Q As Congress shapes the highway bill that authorizes federal surface transportation programs for highways, how will you ensure we maintain a unified national highway system?
A First, we must determine the fundamental missions of the federal program. I am a firm believer in a national transportation system, but I think our current federal-aid program tries to be all things to all people.
The most essential federal role in transportation is to address the needs that affect the vitality of our interstate commerce and our economy as a whole. We must explore new ideas of how to improve transportation safety and reliability. We also need to seriously reconsider the federal government’s role in continuing to support many of the non-essential activities added to the program over the years.
Q Congress has been working on the highway reauthorization bill for more than a year. When do you anticipate a final bill?
A SAFETEA expired Sept. 30, 2009, and I believe we need a long-term extension at current funding levels to ensure certainty and give us time to figure out how to pay for the next bill. The reality is that until there is a financing solution to pay for the robust highway bill the country requires, I do not foresee a new highway bill in the near future. Stakeholder groups will be increasingly important in addressing much needed program reforms and finding solutions to funding shortfalls. This bill will be my fourth authorization, and I believe the challenges in continuing to provide a safe and free flowing transportation network have never been greater.
Q What methods of funding do you propose?
A Current funding levels are not sufficient, as evidenced by DOT’s estimate that the backlog of needed projects to simply maintain the current highway and bridge network is $624 billion and growing. If we simply extended the 2009 levels of the last highway bill, and only increased funding 0.8 percent for inflation there would be a $66 billion hole in the Highway Trust Fund, which is funded through fuel taxes, over the life of the bill (2009–2015). We need to explore numerous financing mechanisms, including expanding the use of public-private partnerships and requiring all users, not just highway users, to contribute to the trust fund. No single option will provide a complete solution.
Q Do you believe fuel taxes will be increased?
A As vehicles become more fuel efficient, the existing funding model of paying per gallon of fuel will not be effective, and the existing federal gas tax is not sufficient. However, there is overwhelming opposition to increasing the gas tax during the current recession, including from the White House and myself, and very little movement in either body to create a long-term solution. For those fuel taxes that are paid, we must ensure that American motorists receive a full and effective return. This may include establishing performance goals and ways to measure progress toward those goals.
Q The amount of time between funding and completed construction of a highway project can be expansive. How can you bring projects to fruition faster?
A We must streamline the planning process so we can deliver projects on budget and on time. That includes ensuring that transportation projects are not needlessly delayed, and therefore made more costly. Too often the environmental review process is used as the means to slow or stop projects, not based on substantive environmental grounds but rather simply because selected individuals oppose the projects.