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A 'Golden Opportunity' for a Realistic, Forward-Looking, Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan

In advance of APTA’s 2018 Legislative Conference, March 18-20, Passenger Transport asked Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to share his thoughts on the likelihood of an infrastructure bill to fund public transportation programs.

Q: Chairman Shuster, we know you are an advocate for restoring the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and that you would like to see an infrastructure bill passed soon—one that provides multi-year funding stability and builds on existing FAST Act programs. What do you feel are the prospects for such a bill?

A: This is a golden opportunity to improve our nation’s infrastructure. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Congress have passed major legislation in recent years for our infrastructure, including the FAST Act for our highways, bridges, transit and passenger rail, as well as multiple Water Resources Development Act bills for our ports, harbors, inland waterways, flood protection and other water infrastructure. With strong presidential leadership and the will of Congress, we can build upon these recent successes to make real investments in America, strengthen the underlying framework of our economy and get something done for the American people. I am confident that we can do this, if we follow a few key principles.

First of all, we have to work together. Only a bipartisan piece of legislation will pass the 60-vote threshold in the Senate and get to the president’s desk. We have already proven this is possible. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members have demonstrated their bipartisanship since I became chairman five years ago, and I look forward to working with Ranking Member [Peter] DeFazio [(D-OR)] and our colleagues in the House on this critical effort in the coming weeks.

My second point is that we must also be realistic. We have significant infrastructure needs across the country, from our urban centers to our small towns and rural communities. Furthermore, the federal government has a constitutional duty to provide for our infrastructure and facilitate commerce.

In order to fulfill our constitutional role with a bipartisan effort, we must realize that we will not attract Democratic support for an infrastructure plan if we don’t provide a significant federal component, and we will not attract Republican support if we do not pay for these real investments in a fiscally responsible way.

Speaking as a conservative, I firmly believe in the user-fee principle embodied in the Highway Trust Fund. In this model, only those who use the transportation system pay for the system’s upkeep. Unfortunately, because the user fee has remained unchanged for the last 25 years, the Highway Trust Fund is no longer sustainable without immediate action. Another shortfall looms just before the next presidential election in 2020. At the national level, we have to face these facts and have an honest conversation about the sustainability of the fund.

This leads me to my third point; we must look to the future in how we fund infrastructure investment. The Highway Trust Fund user fee no longer accurately reflects the current value of the dollar, the state of the industry or how people are getting from here to there.

For example, based on the value of the dollar in 1993 when the user fee was last adjusted, the fee has lost approximately 40 percent of its purchasing power. Greater fuel efficiency and growth in hybrid vehicles mean that highway users are paying less into the system per mile traveled. And with the advent of electric cars, those drivers no longer pay a dime into the Highway Trust Fund.

We have to modernize how we invest in our infrastructure for tomorrow. That includes fixing the Highway Trust Fund, exploring additional sources of revenue and taking advantage of new tools in the tool box.

If the president continues to make infrastructure a priority, as he has since before entering the White House, and if Congress can work together on a realistic, forward-looking, bipartisan plan, we can get something done. In short, if our leaders lead on infrastructure, we will be successful. That is my goal this year, and based on our track record of success in passing other infrastructure legislation, I believe we can build a 21st-century infrastructure for America.
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