Policy

Asked about gas tax, Chao says ‘nothing is off the table’

Transportation secretary also says the Trump administration has ‘learned from the past’

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao indicated there could be support from the White House for higher gas taxes as she fielded questions at a Senate Transportation-HUD appropriations subcommittee meeting on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Wednesday that the administration “has learned from the past” that it should consult with Congress before proposing an infrastructure plan, but stopped short of saying when consultations would start.

Appearing before the Senate’s Transportation-HUD appropriations subcommittee, Chao indicated there could be support from the White House for higher gas taxes and fees on airplane tickets, but she also renewed the administration’s call to cut red tape in project approvals and find ways to attract private-sector funding from pension funds and endowments.

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware asked if the administration would agree to increase the gas tax or the charge on airplane tickets that funds airport expansion.

“I think the good news is nothing is off the table,” Chao responded. She said she was waiting to see what proposal is put forward this spring in the House, where Democrats took the majority in January. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio has said he would try to do an infrastructure bill or a series of bills this year, and then seek larger changes to programs next year, when the current five-year highway and transit spending law needs to be renewed.

In an exchange with Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Chao indicated that might be asking too much. Senators have also questioned whether multiple bills could be passed, especially with the presidential election looming in 2020.

“Can you give us a timetable on when we can expect honest negotiations to go forward on infrastructure?” Durbin asked Chao.

One vehicle

“I think it’s an issue that we all need to discuss because we have surface reauthorization coming up,” Chao said. “So does it make sense to have [two] vehicles, an infrastructure bill, and a surface reauthorization? Given the compressed time frame, it may very well be that it’s easier for everyone, ourselves as well as the Congress, the Senate and the House, to have one vehicle. And that perhaps should be the surface reauthorization bill.”

Under the administration’s budget proposal, the DOT would get $21.4 billion, down from $26.5 billion in the spending package that Congress approved and President Donald Trump signed in February to end a partial government shutdown.

Chao tried to convince senators Wednesday that the budget request was really an increase because it was higher than what Trump requested last year. That budget included an infrastructure plan that never got serious consideration in Congress, even though both chambers were controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans.

Members of the subcommittee were not accepting Chao’s arguments that cuts were really increases.

“DOT’s discretionary budget is cut by $5 billion from the fiscal year 2019 enacted levels,” Chairwoman Susan Collins of Maine said at the beginning of the hearing. “The budget request also fails to address the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.”

The cuts are the result of budget caps that Collins said need to be adjusted to prevent “devastating” impacts on infrastructure and housing programs.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said a line item for repairs on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston and Washington, D.C., was cut in half from $650 million to $325 million.

“They’re not exactly cuts,” Chao responded, saying the $325 million “has traditionally been the amount that the president’s budget requests.”

“How can you say they’re not cuts? You are cutting the Northeast Corridor by $325 million,” Murphy said.

“That’s against enacted,” Chao said. “But compared with the president’s request, it’s always been around this level.”

“Compared with enacted, right,” Murphy said. “Well that’s how we measure cuts. It’s what we got last year versus what we get this year.”

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