Senate transportation bill passes out of finance committee; Transit tax benefit included - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Senate transportation bill passes out of finance committee; Transit tax benefit included

While most of the federal transportation reauthorization lens has been focused on the House, the Senate’s version of the bill, MAP-21 (S.1813, which is now referred to as The Highway Investment, Job Creation and Economic Growth Act of 2012), has progressed out of four committees with bi-partisan support. The last hurdle, the Senate Finance Committee, responsible for approving funding for the two-year, $109 billion bill, passed their portion Feb. 7. The Finance Committee was charged with finding $13 billion in funding to align the bill’s spending with its revenues. They approved $10.4 billion in “found” revenues, including:

  • $3.7 billion transfer from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund, which currently receives a portion of the federal gas tax;
  • $2.8 billion from reducing a tax credit on “black liquor,” which is the byproduct of the process of making paper;
  • $2.5 billion from tariffs on imported cars, which will be redirected from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund;
  • $0.7 billion from the “gas guzzler tax,” which will be redirected from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund. This tax is imposed on vehicles that weigh less than 6,000 pounds and do not meet the current fuel economy standard of 22.5 miles per gallon; and 
  • $0.7 in back taxes collected after revoking the passports of citizens who owe more than $50,000 in past due taxes.

Index the gas tax?

During mark-up, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) offered an amendment to index the federal gas tax to inflation. Though the amendment was withdrawn during the markup, Enzi said, "I'm willing to take all the flak, because I think it's the right thing to do." Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) agreed, saying, "I'd be happy to do that right now."  The federal gasoline tax, which has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, raises most of the revenue that is deposited into the Highway Trust Fund to fund road construction. Enzi said the tax would be 18.9 cents a gallon this year if indexed for inflation. “That is not much of an increase, but it would be enough to fund what we need now.”

Though Sen. Enzi withdrew the amendment, he was right in raising it. Lawmakers’ ongoing resistance to index the gas tax, as well as the increased production of fuel-efficient vehicles (which of course consume less fuel) has severely eroded revenues to support the Highway Trust Fund. 

Permanent transit tax benefit

An important benefit for transit riders was included in the bill. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) sponsored an amendment that would restore, and make permanent, parity between the pre-tax commuter benefits for transit and parking. When the stimulus passed in 2009, it included parity between transit and parking, but due to inaction by Congress, the transit portion was cut in half – from $230 a month to $125 – when the measure expired Jan. 1, 2012. Meanwhile, the parking benefit increased to $240 a month to account for inflation. 

S.1813 reached bipartisan agreement in three other committees: Environment and Public Works, which handled the highway spending portion; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, which covered the transit measures; and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which took on safety and research. The Finance Committee was the final panel to approve the bill, clearing the way for a vote of the full Senate any time.

Bike and walking programs would be cut under MAP-21

One concern with MAP-21 is it reduces funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs.   MAP-21 would eliminate dedicated funding for the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program, a primary funding source for biking and pedestrian programs. Transportation Enhancements would be combined with the Recreational Trails and Safe Routes to School programs along with programs to build high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and wetlands mitigation and listed as "eligible uses" under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program (CAMQ).  Funding for these programs would be capped at $833 million, a $313 million cut from fiscal year 2010.  The bill would also allow states to “opt out” of pedestrian and bicycle programs all together and divert their portion of funding to spend on other CMAQ road projects.    

MPC supports the Cardin/Cochran amendment, which would grant local governments, rather than state DOTs, control over the majority of federal bike and pedestrian funding.

The bill counters the House’s H.R. 7 proposal to tie infrastructure spending to increased oil drilling. H.R. 7 also would eliminate dedicated funding for transit, funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs, and discretionary transit programs, like the highly successful TIGER program. Under H.R. 7, the Chicago region would lose up to $1.2 billion over the next five years, including major cuts to public transit and the Illinois Dept. of Transportation. Additionally the bill would require the Chicago Transit Authority to separate rail and bus operations or lose eligibility for grants that, over the past two years, have generated $80 million for purchasing new busses and rehabbing bus garages. H.R. 7 has passed out of all three required committees and could go to the floor for a full House vote soon.

The Metropolitan Planning Council opposes H.R. 7. Tell your representative to vote NO on H.R. 7 here.


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