Summit News

Calif's Boxer sees future for gas tax, mile fees

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate is considering a wide variety of funding options for the country’s roads, bridges and public transit as it drafts its version of a sweeping national transportation spending bill, Senator Barbara Boxer told Reuters on Thursday.

Senator Barbara Boxer on Capitol Hill in a file photo. REUTERS/Jim Young

But it will not scrap the tax on gasoline sales, the primary source for highway funds, said the California Democrat, who will marshal the bill through the Senate.

“What I think is very important is to index the gas tax to inflation, because, obviously the gas tax is falling behind,” she said at the Reuters Infrastructure Summit. “I also don’t want to increase the gas tax, but I want it to keep up.”

Last summer gas tax revenues dropped because drivers stayed off the roads as oil prices spiked, which depleted the trust used for highway construction and repairs.

The federal government refilled the fund, but the money will likely run out again by September, when the current transportation law expires. Congress must either pass a new spending bill or an extension of the current law.

Boxer said she was confident the bill would pass out of the Environment and Public Works Committee that she chairs and reach the full Senate by the end of the year.

The Senate is also considering raising the tax on diesel, changing exemptions to the gas tax given to certain groups, taking a percentage of customs duties, relying on private finance, and charging drivers fees based on Vehicle Miles Traveled, she said.

The bill’s authors, though, have rejected attaching a small device to cars to measure Vehicle Miles Traveled, Boxer said.

“We’re looking at options. Are there ways for people to -- an honor system, when they register their vehicles -- just say, ‘This is the miles I had last year, this is the miles I have this year,’?” she said.

Many, including Rep. James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who will manage the transportation bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, have suggested attaching a machine smaller than a typical cell phone to vehicles to record mileage.

Like Oberstar, Boxer wants to pass a transportation bill that emphasizes efficiency and consolidates the numerous transportation programs.

But she wants to maintain the same relationship between the federal government and states, whereas Oberstar is considering giving the states more discretion in spending.

An environmental leader in the U.S. Congress, Boxer said she was finding common ground with Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee that she chairs for reducing traffic and congestion.

“We certainly do have to make sure transit gets a fair share of this pie,” she said. “It’s a way to reduce congestion.”

Boxer declined to comment on how much funding would be dedicated to public transportation, saying that the committee has not decided on a total price tag for the bill.

Industry leaders have estimated the entire bill could reach $500 billion.