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Democrats wary of proposed mileage fee for trucks

"What we have is a disagreement on principle," House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said of Republican complaints about the infrastructure bill.
"What we have is a disagreement on principle," House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said of Republican complaints about the infrastructure bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Two congressional Democrats Wednesday panned a Republican proposal to impose a fee on freight trucks based on the number of miles they travel as part of a three-pronged effort to pay for a highway funding bill.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. indicated at a meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials that they weren’t fond of the idea, with DeFazio calling it “problematic.”

[DeFazio wants to go big on infrastructure despite hurdles]

“I’d caution against selectively picking things out,” said Blumenauer, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “There’s been some talk about doing something just with trucks on a limited basis. I think we want to transition on a broader scale, get the buy-in and at the end of the decade be able to make that transition.”

Said DeFazio: “If you’re proposing an additive, selective tax, I think that’s problematic and I believe that may be what the Senate’s doing, so it’s controversial.”

At issue is a proposal floated by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and other Senate Republicans to pay for a five-year, $287 billion highway bill (S 2302) approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee last July that would index the federal gas tax to inflation, impose a national electric vehicle registration fee and impose a fee based on vehicle miles traveled on heavy commercial trucks.

The current surface transportation law (PL 114-94) expires on Sept. 30.

Even before they’d widely circulated the proposal, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a trade association representing road construction companies, asked members to send letters asking lawmakers to support the plan.

That move enraged the trucking industry. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents independent truck drivers, fired off a letter saying “the inclusion of such a divisive, inefficient and unabashedly self-serving policy in the next surface transportation reauthorization would instantly eliminate our support for the bill and likely destroy any hope for its passage.”

Mike Matousek, director of government affairs for the association, said despite Senate Republicans’ consideration of the three-pronged approach, he’s heard of no real support from anyone in the House.

Truck drivers, he said, pay the unified carrier registration tax, excise taxes on trucks, trailers and tires, the international fuel tax agreement tax and heavy vehicle taxes — as well as a higher federal fuel tax for diesel.

“Trucking in general certainly pays its fair share,” Matousek said. “I would argue they pay more than their fair share.”

Susan Howard, the program director for transportation finance for the state transportation officials group, said the association has not endorsed a VMT tax on just truck drivers, but does support the idea of eventually transitioning to a VMT for all vehicles, with an increase in the fuel tax while that transition occurs.

“I think it’s going to be hard to single out just one user,” she said.

Barrasso didn’t mention the tax during his remarks to AASHTO.

Nor did Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

But Davis said increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles and the fact that the tax rate hasn’t changed since 1993 means a replacement is inevitable.

He suggested that a future highway trust fund be paid for through multiple sources, including a vehicle miles traveled tax and a tax on electric vehicles.

DeFazio dismissed the idea of an electric vehicle tax, saying such vehicles represent one half of one percent of all vehicles on the road.

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