“We have missed an opportunity here to stick to the ‘user pays’ principle with regard to the federal gasoline excise tax.”
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that has oversight responsibility for major portions of surface transportation programs funded by the federal government, praised the conferees for reaching an agreement on a five-year transportation bill but issued a stern warning about the flaws in the final accord. Senator Cardin’s full statement on adoption of the Conference Report to H.R. 22, “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act), can be found here.
“I congratulate the House and Senate conferees for reaching an agreement; I know it has been an arduous process. The reauthorization contains many good provisions and provides five years of desperately needed funding for our Nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. I will vote for the Conference Report. But I will do so with serious reservations about how this bill is funded. Our surface transportation infrastructure is a crucial component of our national security and economic competitiveness. Reauthorizing our surface transportation programs used to be a relatively routine matter; now, it is becoming harder and harder to do and we are relying more and more on gimmicky funding mechanisms. These are worrisome precedents.”
Senator Cardin praised the bill for retaining America’s commitment to transportation alternatives: “This bill includes more than $4 billion for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, making our roads safer for everyone who uses them. My bill creating a dedicated program for non-motorized safety is also included in the reauthorization, which will support things like bike safety training programs for both bicyclists and drivers, again making our streets safer for all who use them.”
He also highlighted the successful retention of dedicated funding for bus programs (Section 5340) in high-density areas: “This program is for high-density areas like Baltimore and Washington, DC, which cannot simply widen a road to accommodate extra travelers. The FAST Act provides more than $2.7 billion to high density areas. Over the life of this bill, Maryland should receive more than $4.4 billion in combined funding for roads, bridges, transit, pedestrian and bike paths, and other programs from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA). That is an extraordinary amount of funding for a State that sorely needs it.”
Voicing concerns about the impact on environmental policy, Senator Cardin added: “I am concerned … that the FAST Act undermines National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). … More than 95 percent of all FHWA-approved projects involve no significant impacts and, therefore, have limited NEPA requirements. If we really want to speed project development, we should recognize the known causes of delay–the lack of requisite funding to quickly process the few reviews necessary– and not use this bill as a Trojan horse to dismantle our Nation’s foundational environmental laws.”
Senator Cardin again highlights major flaws in how the bill is funded: “While I have mixed feelings about the policies in this bill, I am not conflicted with regard to how it is funded… instead of opting for a reliable and permanent future revenue stream to pay for this critical government function, the FAST Act falls back on provisions completely unrelated to highways and mass transit. It relies on one-time ‘pay-fors’ that are simply digging a deeper hole for the next reauthorization. That is a troublesome precedent.
“I think we have missed an opportunity here to stick to the ‘user pays’ principle with regard to the federal gasoline excise tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a 10-cent per gallon increase in the tax would fully fund the bill for five year. … Lower gasoline prices let motorists keep more money in their pockets in the short-term. But we have to think about the long term, too, and if we needlessly delay making that inevitable shift, the long-term costs to human health and the environment will dwarf any perceived short-term gains.”
Senator Cardin emphasized the major flaw in the inclusion of a provision as a ‘pay-for’ that has historically cost the federal government more money than it has taken in: “There is one so-called ‘offset’ in the bill that I adamantly oppose: the use of private collection agencies (PCAs) to collect tax debt. I oppose this provision not only because it simply will not raise revenue, but also because it is terrible tax policy that puts a target on the back of low-income and middle-class families. The Treasury Department, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the National Taxpayer Advocate all join me in opposing this provision.
“Twice before, from 1996 to 1997 and from 2006 to 2009, Congress required Treasury to turn over some tax collection efforts to PCAs, with miserable results. The first attempt resulted in the loss of $17 million and contractors participating were found to have violated the Fair Debt Collections Practice Act. The next time, data from the IRS showed that the program actually resulted in a net loss of almost $4.5 million to the Federal Government after subtracting $86.2 million in administration costs and more than $16 million in commissions to the PCAs.
“Because we refuse to turn to obvious and commonsense financing solutions for our transportation infrastructure problems, we have decided instead to use an offset that has historically LOST money, all on the backs of low-income taxpayers.”