A dispute between two prominent Wyomingites is poised to determine the fate of a critical funding mechanism for a heavily anticipated infrastructure package.
Sen. John Barrasso, a member of Senate leadership and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is digging in his heels in opposition to a hike in the gas tax.
Chris Spear, the president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, meanwhile, is exhorting Barrasso to pony up real revenue sources for infrastructure improvements, rather than relying on financing schemes to leverage private-sector funding. Spear’s association is calling for a 20-cent increase in federal taxes for gasoline and diesel fuel.
“I hope that his mind can be changed, as I think the alternatives are going to be very detrimental to his home state, my home state,” Spear told National Journal. “We have some work to do with Chairman Barrasso and others that feel that the user fee is not viable.”
Spear is steeped in Wyoming politics and culture. He’s a member of the board at the University of Wyoming, his alma mater. He owns a home in the state. And he worked for Sen. Michael Enzi, Wyoming’s senior senator, and former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming in the 1990s.
Former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal appointed Barrasso, an orthopedic surgeon and then state senator, to the U.S. Senate in 2007, and Barrasso has since risen rapidly in the chamber. Barrasso spokesman Mike Danylak told National Journal that public-private partnerships may fail to address the needs of Wyoming and other parts of rural America. But Barrasso has repeatedly shot down suggestions of a fuel-tax hike and declined to comment on alternate ways to generate revenue.
Danylak confirmed the senator’s opposition in an email. “Chairman Barrasso is not in favor of raising the federal gas tax,” he said.
States routinely raise gas taxes, and Wyoming increased its gasoline tax from 14 cents to 24 cents in 2013. A spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead didn’t respond to a request for comment on his position on a federal hike.
The current 18.4-cent gas and 24.4-cent diesel taxes haven’t been raised or indexed since 1993. The Highway Trust Fund, a program that is virtually insolvent, relies on the Treasury to fund a big part of its portfolio. The White House has indicated it’s open to a gas-tax hike.
The revenue issue is now ripe for debate. Last week’s high-profile leak of a draft of President Trump’s infrastructure plans, coupled with White House pledges to float a proposal in early February, is increasing the hype around a package, following months of speculation and hand-wringing. Another draft, released late Friday by The Washington Post, calls for sweeping changes to environmental regulation tied to infrastructure projects.
Trump is poised to shed light on an infrastructure package in the State of the Union address on Jan. 30, and lawmakers are eagerly awaiting the details.
Barrasso told National Journal that Gary Cohn, the president’s chief economic adviser, and Elaine Chao, the Transportation secretary, will attend the upcoming Republican retreat in part to discuss infrastructure. The annual retreat will take place Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at a resort in West Virginia.
Some members of Congress, however, are contending that the White House math simply doesn’t add up. So far, the administration has proposed $200 billion in federal money, leveraged to $1 trillion through state and private funding, a position that the initial leaked infrastructure document, released first by Axios, maintains.
That ratio appears far-fetched to Republicans, Democrats, and industry members alike. “The challenge on it is getting the match, and I still think that’s the real challenge,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a Republican member of the environment committee.
Rounds and Barrasso represent rural states. Public-private infrastructure partnerships, which typically feature tolling, are common on infrastructure arteries with high traffic volume. But they generally don’t pass muster in other parts of the country.
“In rural areas, it costs more to put the tolling in place than you’re going to raise [through tolls],” said Robert Freeman, a lobbyist at Cozen O’Connor and a veteran staffer on Capitol Hill and in past administrations.
Meanwhile, Trump said last week he hopes to elevate the top line to a $1.7 trillion infrastructure package.
“The idea that somehow you can turn $200 billion of federal funding into $1.7 trillion overall may be the triumph of man’s hope over experience,” Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the environment panel, told National Journal.
The initial leaked document, which the White House hasn’t commented on publicly, says federal grants will weigh heavily on the ability of states and other governmental authorities to demonstrate access to nonfederal funding. Eligible projects, according to the document, include highways, rail systems, and ports, and development of sites contaminated by industrial use.
The draft suggests more state flexibility on tolling and commercializing interstate rest areas as financing options. Lawmakers and industry advocates say the document is a recycled product of years of infrastructure brainstorming.
Federal Highway Administration policy authorizes 80 percent federal funding for most state highway projects. “Now you’re proposing 20 to 80? I think that’s going to be a really tough sell to the states and governors,” Spear said.
Carper, a former governor of Delaware, said he’d “scream bloody murder to that” if he still occupied his previous seat.
But despite the revenue challenges, lawmakers are bullish on infrastructure prospects.
“There’s clearly bipartisan support in Congress to spend money on infrastructure,” said Jim Tymon, COO at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “Really the struggle over the last 10 years has been, I guess, a lack of political will to address the core issue of not bringing in enough revenue.”
White House support for revenue generators such as the gas tax could give reluctant lawmakers “political cover,” Tymon said. His group has released a memo that identifies dozens of potential revenue generators, ranging from a gas-tax hike to an imported-oil tax.
Barrasso is far from alone in his opposition to a gas-tax increase. Many Republicans oppose it, while conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth have warned lawmakers against it for years.
But the House point person on infrastructure, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, appears far less entrenched. “He wants every responsible option to be on the table for discussion,” spokesman for Shuster’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Justin Harclerode, said “The chairman wants to have an open and realistic discussion about our infrastructure needs and how we address them for the long term.”
Pennsylvania, the state Shuster represents, has the highest gas tax in the nation.
Truckers currently pay 45 percent of Highway Trust Fund tax revenue, according to the American Trucking Associations. Meanwhile, a 20-cent gas hike could save Americans at least $1,400 a year, factoring in maintenance costs and gas wasted in congestion, according to the group.
“That, to me, is a no-brainer. And if folks on the Hill can’t take something that logical, that conservative, and sell that back home, I would be surprised,” Spear said. “We need to move ahead from ideology and move into reality.”