Republicans Say Highway Trust Fund Won't Be Raided

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[UPDATED: With added quotes.]

(Washington, D.C. -- Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) Republicans in the House of Representatives say they've been reassured by their newly-empowered leadership about the future of the Highway Trust Fund.

Democrats have been spending first weeks of the new Congress--in response to headlines touting the new Republican House Majority and its austere rules on government spending--complaining that the GOP was preparing to raid the fund to use the money elsewhere in the federal budget. That is a possibility because rules adopted by the GOP require any increases in government spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere. The big pool of money that is the Highway Trust Fund is an attractive reservoir for lawmakers who don't want to raise taxes or cut popular social programs.

But newly appointed Republican Chairman of the Transportation Committee, John Mica (R-Fla.) tells Transportation Nation in an interview that won't happen. "I think what was put in place were some good protective measures. ... The Highway Trust Fund will remain the purview of the Transportation Committee and can’t be used for other uses."

Listen to the interview with John Mica:

The Highway Trust Fund is funded largely by an 18.4 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax. The money is meant for road, bridge, highway and transit projects.

Democrats are unconvinced the funds are safe. "They have said the firewall is down," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned reporters on Capitol Hill. "This is irresponsible to violate a law that created a trust fund for the American people." Reid asked rhetorically of the GOP, "Are they out of their mind?"

Turns out pro-transportation Republicans are bracing for cuts to the Trust Fund, but not in the way Democrats think.

Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), a high-ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says newly-mined House speaker John Boehner (R-Calif.) assured Republicans that new budget rules notwithstanding, Highway Trust Fund money won't get used for any other purpose.

Duncan said many Republican lawmakers went to Boehner with concerns about the fund's vulnerability as a revenue source. That was after organizations from the Chamber of Commerce to trucking and labor groups voiced similar worries. That's when Boehner offered the GOP conference his guarantee.

"As long as we stick by that, I'll be satisfied," Duncan said in an interview with Transportation Nation.

That's not to say the road projects will enjoy a bottom line close to what its been in years past. Rep. Mica has said that money from general government funds that for years supplemented the anemic trust fund is soon to dry up. "Now our challenge is taking diminishing revenues and making them go further. But I think we can do that by speeding up some of the process, cutting red tape and leveraging some of the funds we have better."

And keep in mind: Just because the GOP says it won't use trust fund money for other purposes doesn't mean its revenue can't be cut. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) who chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee acknowledged in an interview that some Republicans on his panel would like to lower the federal gas tax. "I know its under discussion," Camp said. He declined to elaborate. Mica, however said that's unlikely to happen. "I think it’s almost impossible to drop the rate." Though he added that he expects gas tax revenues to fall. "Fewer people are using gasoline. We have alternative fuels. The revenue will go down" whether we like it or not.

Both Mica and Duncan, who also counts himself a supporter of transit and infrastructure projects, suggest highways spending would be austere but not eviscerated. Duncan explained, "I think you're still going to see many billions spent on highways and transit in the coming years ... Just not as much as everybody wants. But that's just the way it is with almost everything now."

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