The Obama administration has been floating draft language for surface transportation legislation that could lead to a tax on vehicle miles traveled, allow states to impose tolls on some existing interstate highways and set up an Office of Freight Policy inside the Department of Transportation.
DOT officials will not confirm that the “Transportation Opportunities Act” is their work. A White House spokeswoman told The Hill newspaper that it was only an early working draft, not a proposal supported by the administration or reflecting the views of President Obama.
But industry groups are taking it seriously as a first sign of what the administration is considering in detail, while committees in Congress prepare to write their own versions of a six-year surface transportation bill to replace programs that will expire in September.
Washington sources say the document now getting attention was first distributed in March to a small group of transportation specialists. The administration sent out the draft for their comments to help shape a future plan, sources say, with the understanding they would not discuss it.
“I’m surprised it was kept secret for so long,” one said.
The sources also say it predates the 2011 budget deal between President Obama and House Republican leaders to avert a government shutdown, so it’s not clear how that might have changed any of the ideas in the transportation draft.
The draft calls for a “Surface Transportation Revenue Alternatives Office” within the Federal Highway Administration to study the feasibility “of a national mileage-based user fee system” over six years and conduct field trials of it. One section would alter existing law to allow state and local governments to toll interstates and non-interstate routes to ease congestion in areas with more than 1 million people.
This plan would keep administration ideas of replacing the Highway Trust Fund with a broader Transportation Trust Fund that includes some rail and other programs not traditionally under highway agencies, and create a National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund to issue grants and loans.
It also might deal with what has become a serious public relations problem for the administration’s high-speed rail program, which draw sharp criticism for not delivering any true high-speed passenger rail lines. Instead, nearly all its money is going into slower Amtrak train routes shared with freight railroads.
This draft promotes a “National High Performance Rail System” that enhances existing passenger rail service, makes optimal use of the freight rail network and requires a study on how to best develop passenger rail in those shared-use corridors.
— Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jboydjoc