Highway bill hits snag over tax hike

Alaska Rep. Don Young pushes for 5-cent per gallon increase in federal gas tax

Posted: Monday, February 02, 2004

WASHINGTON - The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee put off a vote on a six-year, $375 billion transportation bill because of disagreements with GOP leaders and the White House over raising the gasoline tax.

The committee chairman, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, want a 5-cent per gallon increase in the federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon. The tax finances the highway trust fund.

House leaders asked Young to postpone a committee vote, scheduled for Wednesday, to give them time to come up with other sources to pay for the bill, said Young's spokesman, Steve Hansen. The current transportation bill, passed in 1998, expires Feb. 29.

Both the White House and House leaders oppose a gas tax increase. John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Hastert is trying to get the numbers to work.

"It's not quite soup yet," Feehery said.

In the Senate, both the Finance Committee and the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee postponed votes on a $311 billion bill.

The White House has proposed a $247 billion plan, with no increase in the gasoline tax. Lawmakers say that does not go far enough to meet the nation's highway and transit needs.

House Republicans who want to raise the tax point out that it has not increased since 1993, which amounts to a reduction if inflation is considered.

"We're trying to restore purchasing power of the highway trust fund," said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure's subcommittee on highways, transit and pipelines.

"If we continue to erode the purchasing power of the trust fund, we will fall short. The result is we will sit in traffic, and we'll face higher prices due to lower efficiency," Petri said.

Some conservatives are rallying around an alternative introduced by Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn. His bill would repeal the ban on interstate highway tolls, so states could fund construction of new "FAST" lanes by charging drivers who want to use them.

The legislation would require tollbooths to have noncash electronic technology such as sensors capable of reading a device inside a car. The tolls would end when the lanes were paid for.

Kennedy's bill and a gas tax increase are not mutually exclusive. Petri said the emerging transportation bill might include a pilot program that would incorporate Kennedy's bill in certain areas.

Kennedy said he sees no way an increase in the gas tax would be signed into law.

"You really think this president is going to increase taxes?" he asked.

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