Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Toll roads: "Much of the nation doesn’t want them."

Congressman wants to reignite gas-tax debate


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

IRVING — U.S. Rep. James Oberstar doesn’t blame Texans for their opposition to toll roads.
In fact, the veteran congressman from Minnesota, who spoke Wednesday at the Transportation Summit in Irving, believes much of the nation doesn’t want them.

So instead of building toll roads to raise money for highway projects, the ranking Democrat on the House transportation committee said he wants to rekindle the debate for a 5-cents-a-gallon increase in the federal motor-fuels tax.

He said he doubts that voters would revolt over what he calls a miniscule tax increase. Instead, he said, they would probably hardly notice it — what with gasoline prices hovering around $3 a gallon. The increase could provide several billion dollars a year in additional revenue for road work nationwide.

“The public understands that it’s a highway user fee,” Oberstar said after a speech to about 1,000 summit attendees, whom he urged to support a gas tax increase. “You pay it and drive away. It’s a user fee the public is ready to accept.”

The Bush administration has adamantly opposed raising the tax, which is 18.4 cents a gallon and hasn’t been increased since 1993. Last year, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure initially proposed spending $375 billion over five years on highways, buses and rails, an amount that would have required a gas tax increase. But the committee backed down and dropped the appropriation to $275 billion after reports that the White House would fight it.

In Texas, motorists pay a state gas tax of 20 cents a gallon, and Gov. Rick Perry opposes raising it, too.

Those opposed to raising the gas tax at either level of government say it is a funding source on the decline because cars are becoming more fuel efficient and some are powered by alternative fuels.

Oberstar, a member of the transportation committee since he joined Congress in 1975, said he would counteract that by also taxing alternative fuels “at their source.” For example, hydrogen-fueled vehicles would be taxed by a meter placed at recharging stations.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, is also a member of the transportation committee. She told the summit gathering that committee members, who are sometimes criticized for adding local “pork” projects to the federal highway budget, are united in fighting for road funds.

“We don’t have any partisan bickering on that committee,” Johnson told the luncheon crowd, which then laughed at her candor: “Everybody in there tries to get what they want, and we try to get them what they want.”

Raising the federal gas tax by 5 cents would protect the federal Highway Trust Fund from inflation, said Matt Sundeen, a transportation official at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

By 2010, the 18.4-cent federal tax will have the buying power of only about 12 cents, because the cost of materials such as steel and concrete are expected to keep rising, he said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

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