WASHINGTON, D.C. — Bill Shuster and Barbara Boxer — the respective chairs of the House and Senate’s major transportation infrastructure committees — told state transportation officials Thursday that their efforts to educate the public and Congress on the nation’s infrastructure needs are essential to passing key legislation.
The duo’s comments highlight the push to educate the public and Congress on the need for infrastructure funding as both chambers take on key transportation legislation this year. Both chambers have identified the Water Resources Development Act, a long-delayed bill key to authorizing port and inland waterway projects, as their top priority this session. Shuster and Boxer said they have been discussing the bill and want to take a bipartisan approach. The Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which Boxer, D-Calif., chairs, has already begun hearings on the bill.
“When I say WRDA, I always have to say, ‘Water Resources Development Act,’ not because I don’t know it, but because half the members of the House today weren’t around in 2007,” said Shuster, R-Pa., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Again, that’s the educational challenge that we have to make sure they understand what the water bill does.”
He said that although waterborne transportation is the cheapest mode to ship goods, much of the general public and many in Congress aren’t aware of its importance unless they live in areas dependent on ports and inland waterways. The Senate committee is exploring the idea of creating a maritime financing program similar to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), which is for surface transportation, Boxer said at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ annual Washington, D.C., briefing.
Shuster reiterated his pledge to consider all funding options when it comes to creating the next surface transportation bill. The current two-year, $105 billion bill, known as MAP-21, expires in about 18 months. The Highway Trust Fund, the biggest engine for highway, bridge and road construction, faces a more than $20 billion shortfall when the bill runs out, largely because more fuel-efficient vehicles are producing less fuels tax revenue. Raising taxes on gasoline and diesel is widely seen as the most realistic way to narrow the between available funding and construction needs, but such a tax hike is politically unpopular in Congress and in the Obama administration.
“I’m not so sure we have the technology in place or the political will to do a vehicle miles per travel (method of taxing surface transport users),” Shuster said.
He said his committee is once again looking at raising funding by tapping royalties and leases from offshore oil and natural gas production. The Congressional Budget Office “killed us” with the $1 billion projection they gave the House during the MAP-21 push, but Shuster said the staff of Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and presidential contender, thinks there are far more dollars available.