In a Congressional coup, the Surface Transportation Bill (or Highway Bill, as most call it) has been cobbled together by a bipartisan House and Senate conference committee. For the first time in more than a decade, highway projects can now be planned on a five year horizon.
This hasn’t happened since the days of President George W. Bush.
Of course, the bill has its critics. There were winners and losers. But on balance, this legislation, which will govern the highway, rail and transit policies for the next five years, is good for the country and for maintaining America’s highway infrastructure.
Travelers United, DC’s main consumer advocacy organization, was active in helping shape the initial bill, and it banded together with most of the travel industry associations to stop Congress from raiding monies set aside for improvements to Customs and Border Protection.
Unfortunately, this rare consumer/airline/cruise line/labor coalition lost this funding battle.
Negotiators begrudgingly swallowed many of the pay-fors, including a plan to dig into the Federal Reserve’s pockets to the tune of billions of dollars and a separate idea to funnel revenue from a customs fee levied on airline and cruise passengers to the highway fund, according to reports.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said he opposed using revenue from the customs fees but ultimately signed off the conference report.
Bottom line? Airline and cruise passengers are facing higher taxes (whether they are called fees or not) on travel. It is not good for our country to begin a shell game of charging fees for one thing and applying them to another. Overall, it will hurt travel, which is one of the primary drivers of our economy.
Importantly, this was the first time that a consumer group has had the opportunity to be involved in the final stages of negotiation on a bill of this magnitude. The direct letter sent to all staff who worked on this bill got results and, according to insiders, was debated vigorously by the conferees.
The tireless efforts of the staff in assembling this bill over the Thanksgiving weekend should be recognized. The staff negotiations were nonstop and often went late into the night. Some staff slept overnight in their offices in order to pull everything together for Tuesday’s conference committee vote.
Though the budget gimmicks used to finance this bill are hard to stomach, Congress managed to craft a clear path forward for the next half decade. Now, the public should begin to let its representatives know that they would not rebel if faced with a penny or two-cent, or three-cent, gasoline tax increase.
With better fuel economy in today’s cars, increasing use of public transportation, and the low prices for oil, a gasoline tax is probably the most responsible way to replenish the nation’s highway funds for the long-range future. Plus, it is what amounts to a direct tax on highway usage.
Congress and its tireless staff deserve a big “Bravo!” from the public on this Highway Bill effort. Now, it’s time to turn our sights on the FAA Reauthorization Bill that will direct aviation policy for the coming half-decade.