CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure came to West Virginia on Monday seeking answers on how to pay for the long-term reauthorization of the federal highway transportation program, due to expire March 4.
They returned to Washington with more questions about how they planned to address the issue, although they did learn about several promising homegrown funding initiatives.
Committee members held the first in a series of 12 national field hearings on the planned reauthorization of the federal surface transportation act early in the day in the Hulett Smith Theater at Tamarack in Beckley, hometown of ranking Democratic committee member Rep. Nick Rahall.
Later, they traveled to Charleston's Yeager Airport, where committee member Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., hosted the first in a series of less-formal public "listening sessions" with contractors, business operators, highway officials and county officeholders.
In addition to Rahall and Capito, committee members attending Monday's events were Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee.
At issue is the looming expiration and planned reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005, which funded federal surface transportation projects through September 2009, and has been kept alive by a series of temporary extensions since then.
Federal excise tax revenues from gasoline and diesel fuel have funded the surface transportation program, but those revenues have not kept up with highway and transit infrastructure needs.
The trust fund into which the fuel taxes are deposited had dwindled to $7.9 billion by the end of the 2010 fiscal year, despite three general revenue infusions totaling nearly $35 billion, and is projected to dry up completely sometime in 2013.
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members said they hope to reauthorize the 2005 act for several years before they adjourn in August, after passing another temporary six-month extension before the act's March 4 expiration date.
But Rahall said the next long-term surface transportation bill would be a dramatically pared-down version of the last six-year bill proposal -- a $500 billion package put forth in 2009 but never voted on.
Rahall said he envisions reauthorization legislation containing about half the money in that proposal. "And that doesn't even maintain current needs," he said.
"There's a new atmosphere in Washington," said Mica. "It's very difficult to get votes to the floor that aren't reducing some program."
An increase in the federal excise tax on gasoline and diesel sales, not raised since 1993, would be the easiest way to fund a long-term transportation program, but Mica says that won't happen.
"I said last summer that the gas tax increase was dead," he said. After last fall's election, "it's dead, buried and six feet under."
That didn't please some people who spoke at Monday's meetings.
"The gas tax seems to be one of the fairest ways to go," said Mike Clowser, director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia, who testified during the Beckley hearing. "You can look at is as a user fee."
"The Federal Highway Trust Fund keeps getting lower, and it's something that just didn't happen overnight," said state Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, also director of the Coalfields Expressway Authority. "How can you prop it up without the gas tax?"