The House is a dangerous place these days. You want to have a fruitful conversation about how to solve the transportation funding crisis and you end up ruminating about whether to tax bikes.
That’s what happened to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). He requested that the Budget Committee hold a hearing on the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, but guess who controls the agenda? Not Earl Blumenauer! Committee Chair Paul Ryan controls the agenda. And he invited Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation and Richard Geddes of Cornell University and the American Enterprise Institute as the Republican witnesses.
Ryan didn’t stick around past his opening statement – he had other business to attend to – but guess who he passed the gavel to? Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey – the guy who keeps sponsoring a bill to diminish the federal role in transportation funding and pass it along to the states. This hearing was clearly going to be a doozy.
Highways only and forever
The hearing started off crazy and just got crazier. Poole got right to the point: Let’s stop funding anything but highways out of the Highway Trust Fund. There’s plenty of money in it if we only spend it on highways – and not just any old highways either, only the ones with a role in interstate commerce. You know, the ones that are “truly federal.”
Not only that, let’s move the Federal Transit Administration out of U.S. DOT and into the Department of Housing and Urban Development – “That would be consistent with the increasing emphasis at FTA on smart growth, community economic development and so forth.” Essentially, let those woolly urban liberals go crazy over at HUD — we weren’t using that agency anyway. Let’s keep DOT clean of all that livability junk.
Oh, and let that new HUD FTA fight for general funds every year, instead of having guaranteed income from a trust fund.
Some more tolling could be helpful, too, Poole said; some public-private partnerships, some private activity bonds, TIFIA, and let’s talk about switching to a mileage-based user fee, or VMT tax – but really, the red meat here is highways and only highways.
Thanks, Robert Poole. Next up, Richard Geddes wanted to talk about the insustainability of any funding mechanism that depends on the burning of fossil fuels and the benefits of a VMT fee — a decent start. But the part of his talk that Rep. Garrett homed in on was the mention of a “permanent” public trust fund (basically a Highway Trust Fund, but invested in the stock market). Garrett speculated that Washington would get its mitts on that “permanent” fund and “use it for different things – highway beautification, bike paths – ooh, great things” but not what highway money should be used for.