Shuster: Would Consider Hike in Fuel Taxes, Highway Tolling

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This story appears in the Nov. 12 print edition of Transport Topics.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who is expected to take over as chairman of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that everything from higher fuel taxes to tolling is on the table when it comes to making the Highway Trust Fund solvent.

Shuster announced last week that he is seeking the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairmanship. He said the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund must be a “priority.”

“I want to look across the spectrum, look at tolling, look at the other various ways, public-private partnerships and, certainly, you have to look at the gas tax, the user fee, certainly, all those things have to be looked at,” Shuster told reporters Nov. 8.

Shuster would replace current chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), whose term is limited by House rules.

 “I believe there’s going to be some large-scale negotiations taking place, not only in the lame duck but then into the next year,” Shuster said. “And they’ll be dealing with some of these significant [issues], not just trust fund issues but tax reform, the fiscal cliff, what we’re going to be doing with debt ceiling,” he said.

“So there’s going to be a lot of big negotiations; the grand bargain may occur,” he said, speaking two days after presidential and congressional elections that left the political landscape fundamentally unchanged from last year, when House Republicans could not agree on funding for transportation spending.

Shuster is currently chairman of the House transportation subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.

The political status quo in Washington remains unaltered from 2011, with President Obama reelected, Republicans controlling the House and Democrats controlling the Senate.

Some faces at the bargaining table will be different, however. Election results and party rules for Republicans mean some representatives and senators give up leadership posts.

There may also be a new Transportation Secretary. Ray LaHood said last year he would not serve a second term, although he recently hinted he might change his mind. His office did not respond to requests about his plans.
Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) must surrender his chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit because of term limits.

At press time for Transport Topics at least eight House elections were still undecided but the Transportation Committee will undergo change, said Mary Phillips, senior vice president in charge of legislative affairs for American Trucking Associations.

“Eight members we know are not returning due to being defeated, retiring or running for other offices,” Phillips said.

And because Republicans lost some House seats, they “probably won’t have a seven-seat majority” on the transportation committee, Phillips said.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, also is term-limited.
On the Senate side, there will be changes on the Commerce and Environment and Public Works committees, with the retirement of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) from Commerce and departure of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) from EPW.

“Inhofe is term-limited and [Sen. David] Vitter [R-La.] is next in line,” Phillips said.

Inhofe is credited with helping produce the bipartisan transportation reauthorization bill passed this summer, after House Republicans were unable to agree on a bill of their own.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is expected to be the top Republican on the commerce panel, Phillips said.

On the Democratic side, those in transportation policymaking are unlikely to change. The party does not have term limits.

The new transportation law, known as MAP 21, expires in September 2014, meaning the new Congress will have to produce a new bill.

Although post-election cabinet and committee changes are important to trucking, the immediate concern following the re-election of Obama is the economy, said ATA spokesman Sean McNally.

 “On the legislative side the voters have returned a slightly less Republican House and a slightly more Democratic Senate, so, we hope those two groups could get together and address not just transportation issues . . . but some of the other issues important to the general business community and to the economy,” McNally said.

The “fiscal cliff,” a combination of tax extension and automatic budget cuts set to take effect at the end of 2012, “can have serious ramifications for the economy and . . . that would have serious ramifications for trucking,” McNally said.