October 18, 2023

Ranking Members Larsen, Norton Statements from Hearing on the Highway Trust Fund

Washington, D.C.—The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) during today’s hearing titled, “Running on Empty: The Highway Trust Fund.”

Video of Larsen and Norton’s opening statements are here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Chair Crawford and Ranking Member Norton, for holding this hearing.

Today’s hearing on the state of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is an opportunity to discuss a critical responsibility facing this Committee: how do we ensure a continued, shared, reliable, and robust funding package for surface transportation projects across the country in the future?

States, local governments, Tribes, and transit agencies rely on the certainty of funding from the Highway Trust Fund to plan and build road, bridge, and transit projects that support the economy, connect people to jobs and provide safe transportation. 

Today’s hearing is titled “Running on Empty” because revenues into the HTF have been insufficient to support the bipartisan infrastructure priorities and investment levels set by Congress since 2001.

As a result, Congress has transferred $275 billion from the General Fund to the HTF since 2008 to maintain the system of federal support for state and local transportation projects. A system that has been in place since the 1950s.

Revenues have not kept pace with investments because Congress last acted to raise the federal gas and diesel taxes—the main sources of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund––in 1993. That was 30 years ago. 

If the federal fuel taxes were indexed, the current rate for gasoline would be over 37 cents per gallon (compared to the 18.3 cents per gallon today) and diesel fuel would be nearly 50 cents per gallon (compared to 24.3 cents per gallon today). It is no surprise that the purchasing power of this revenue has deteriorated over three decades.

While the future of the Highway Trust Fund needs thoughtful consideration by this Committee, cutting infrastructure investment is not an option.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law marks the largest investment in our transportation infrastructure since the founding of the Interstate Highway System and the creation of the Highway Trust Fund.

We cannot have a big-league economy with little-league infrastructure. That is why we enacted the BIL, to respond to decades of underinvestment at the federal level.

Just last week, the Federal Highway Administration announced over $60 billion for roads, bridges, and safety projects distributed by formula to states so every state in the country sees a direct and demonstrable benefit from the funds. I would encourage all members to call your governors, tell them to get that money spent and jobs created in your districts. Even as the federal government operates under a Continuing Resolution, dedicated revenues from the Highway Trust Fund made that announcement possible.

This kind of consistent investment should be the norm, not the exception.

Thanks to the continuity provided by the Highway Trust Fund, states, local governments and Tribal governments go into every construction season with the certainty needed to move ahead on planned projects without delay. 

In the coming decades, with anticipated increases in population and demand for freight transportation, sustained and predictable investment in our infrastructure and in safe mobility will only grow in importance.

In the next surface transportation reauthorization, Congress will have to decide how to fund transportation investments, and whether or not to adjust the sources and levels of revenue that go into the Highway Trust Fund. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directed the Department of Transportation to establish a pilot program evaluating a National Motor Vehicle Per-Mile User Fee. The BIL also updates and continues a grant program for state-level user fee pilot programs.

As a matter of history, in 2005, in one of these iterations of transportation legislation being passed, that included a transportation and revenue commission that came back and recommended a Vehicle Per-Mile travelled fee—which was 16 years ago by my math—and we are still treating this as a pilot program. My home state of Washington has established a pilot program to test and analyze a road usage charge (RUC) for vehicles as an alternative to the gas tax.

I am happy to have Reema Griffith, the Executive Director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, which runs Washington State’s RUC program, here to share lessons learned with the committee.

States across the country are taking action to increase revenue to fund transportation projects.

Since 2012, 31 states have approved plans to increase revenue through additional bonds, fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, and tolling.

Additionally, at least 33 states assess annual EV fees, ranging from $50 to $225. To be clear, electric vehicles are not the cause of today’s Trust Fund insolvency—but as they become more prevalent, Congress will need to decide how to incorporate them if we retain a user-pays system.

As states continue to explore options to fund transportation investment, Congress can learn from these efforts.

One more history lesson. Back in 2015, I observed that “Our country’s transportation funding is running on empty. Without predictable federal transportation investments, we slam the brakes on creating jobs and growing our economy.”

Eight years later, I continue to appreciate that this sentiment, and the urgency with which we must continue to press for a long-term transportation funding solution, is being carried forward in today’s hearing.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about the path forward.

Ranking Member Norton:
I would like to thank Subcommittee Chair Rick Crawford for holding this hearing on the status of the Highway Trust Fund.

For decades, the Highway Trust Fund has provided a predictable and stable funding source for the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Transportation projects take time to plan and build. Having a dedicated revenue stream—largely supported by the tax on gasoline and diesel—has allowed Congress to provide states, cities and transit agencies with the certainty they need to plan and deliver transportation projects.

However, because the gas and diesel taxes are flat taxes that have not been adjusted in three decades, the purchasing power of that revenue stream has eroded. Improved vehicle fuel economy and the increased adoption of zero-emission vehicles also represent an emerging challenge Congress will need to address.

Congress needs to find a solution for the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. That could mean increasing user fees or indexing them to inflation. It also might mean transitioning to a new system based on vehicle miles traveled, which several of our witnesses are piloting at the state level.

Whatever Congress decides, we need to ensure that our solution meets several criteria. First, we need to provide a sustainable revenue source for the Highway Trust Fund that allows this Committee to continue to enact multi-year surface transportation bills.

States, cities and transit agencies cannot build cohesive and functional transportation systems if they do not know how much funding they will receive year to year. Congress must continue to provide that certainty.

Second, we need to continue investing in public transportation. Cutting federal support for transit would be catastrophic not just for transit riders, but for drivers as well.

Last Wednesday, here in the national capital region, Metro carried 440,000 riders on its rail system alone. They have been carrying nearly 400,000 riders each weekday on their bus network.

Imagine if even a fraction of those 800,000 transit riders had been forced to drive instead. Everyone would lose out from more gridlock, more air pollution and more time wasted in traffic. We must continue to guarantee strong federal transit funding.

Third, we need to continue building for the future. With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress took steps to address challenges that have been an afterthought for far too long.

We created the first-ever highway formula program to reduce carbon pollution.

We established two new programs to redress the harms caused to neighborhoods that were divided by highways and bear a heavy burden from pollution.

We created the Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program to provide safe and reliable transportation choices for more people.

Those are not luxuries. Those are essential to building modern-day transportation systems that work for all people and road users and address the challenges of the 21st century.

Addressing the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund is not an easy task, but it is an essential one. I look forward to hearing the recommendations and insight from our witnesses today.