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Transportation

Obama Nixes Gas Hike, Fees

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is ­opposed to a gasoline tax increase or mileage fee to generate revenue for the next multi-year transportation bill, but would support a number of public and private options ­including bond-related financing, Transportation Secretary Ray ­LaHood said Friday.

“There is a path forward ­without raising the gas tax” that currently supports federal grants to states for transportation projects, LaHood said at a public-private partnership conference hosted by American Road and Transportation Builders ­Association.

The path forward could be a combination of funding from the recently distressed highway trust fund, tolling and public-private partnerships, and the national infrastructure fund that has been proposed by the administration, he said.

When asked if a mileage fee — a user fee on drivers —  could be revived as a candidate for a new revenue source, LaHood gave a firm, “No.” 

He had previously indicated mileage fees might be an option, only to be shot down by administration officials.

In conversations about potential financing tools within the administration, private-activity bonds have not come up that much, he said.

By contrast, the popular low-interest federal loan program, TIFIA, has a strong presence on the administration’s radar.

LaHood repeated a promise to “very soon” unveil Obama’s priorities for a transportation bill.

The long-awaited reauthorization would replace the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, which expired on Sept. 30, 2009. Federal surface transportation programs have been extended by stopgap measures. The money to pay for them has been ­provided by general fund transfers into a federal account that supports state-run highway and bridge ­construction ­projects.

While transportation policy writers in the Senate have not yet unveiled any multi-year legislation, a proposal introduced last summer by House Transportation Committee chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., would revamp the current system and expand rail and transit.

“We don’t disagree with a lot of those things” that are in Oberstar’s bill, and “we know what needs to be done,” LaHood said. The problem is coming up with $500 billion to pay for those needs, he added.

Congressional aides on Thursday had warned that unless the House and Senate approve a multi-year transportation bill early next year, the reauthorization process could be prolonged even more by the 2012 election cycle.

If gas tax revenue continue to fall short of outlays, and lawmakers turn once again to a general fund transfer, the highway trust fund could lose its protected status, the aides said. The fund is currently separated from the annual appropriations process, a funding system that transportation advocates argue is a necessity for long-term planning.

LaHood said he cannot predict the timing of the next transportation law, but that “we’re not even to August yet.”

The current SAFETEA-LU extension expires at the end of December, and Congress has moved enough general funds into the highway account to last several months.

“We haven’t been sitting around,” ­LaHood said.

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