Monday, April 21, 2008

$1.5 trillion for the next five-year federal transportation bill?

Toll roads, higher gas taxes predicted


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — When it comes to the big picture, two ranking members of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, one Republican and the other Democrat, were on the same page in separate speeches Monday.

Building toll roads and leasing some to private corporations will be needed to keep traffic moving on the nation's highways, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., told more than 1,000 people at the Texas Transportation Forum.

But so will higher gas taxes, though the pair differed on how.

Johnson said the 18.4 cents-a-gallon federal tax needs to go up at least a nickel and that states need to boost rates, too.

"We know there's got to be an increase in the gas tax eventually," she said.

Mica said the tax probably should be calibrated to rise with an inflation index and that a per-mile tax then should be phased in within a decade using vehicle-tracking technologies.

"Oh yeah, I think you're going to have to do that," he said.

Both talks hit on all cylinders for a crowd made up mostly of government and industry officials hungry to hear how more funds can be poured into transportation.

The Texas Department of Transportation, which held the forum, recently retrenched and targeted nearly all its gas tax and fee collections into maintenance.

"The reality is, we're in a difficult financial situation," TxDOT Assistant Director Phil Russell said at an afternoon session. "Right now, across the state, any addition in capacity is probably going to have to be looked at as toll lanes."

Toll roads and privatization are at least part of the answer, said Johnson, who's been working with a handful of members of Congress from Texas since last year to come up with a bipartisan list of recommendations.

"We cannot see how it can be done with just tax dollars," she said.

Mica, who's calling for a national vision and policy for transportation, said all funding options must be weighed.

Congress should consider taxes and fees, innovative financial packaging and public-private partnerships to harvest $1.5 trillion for the next five-year transportation bill, which is due next year, he said.

Such a bill would be five times larger than the current law.

"Hang in there, baby, you'll see," Mica said. "I think we can do it."

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