U.S. Rep. Ryan says no gas tax hike to pay for Highway Trust Fund

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan on Wednesday made one thing clear about how he plans to deal with the Highway Trust Fund: raising the federal gas tax isn’t an option.

“There’s not much happening in this economy to help it grow,” the Wisconsin Republican said during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing. “But lower gas prices, that’s one thing that’s happening that’s good for consumers. Working families have been struggling for years to get by … It would be dumb and unfair to take that away from them.”

Ryan’s opinion isn’t necessarily the final word on the matter, but as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he wields a lot of sway as lawmakers try to negotiate the details of the transportation funding legislation. The fund in its current form is set to expire at the end of July, after Congress pushed through an eleventh-hour deal in May that extended it for another two months.

That leaves lawmakers about six weeks to come to some sort of consensus.

Wednesday’s hearing was billed as a way of finding long-term financing options for the Highway Trust Fund, though Ryan noted that the solution that will be presented before the end of July would likely be short term.

For that reason, ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., pushed back at Ryan’s position on the gas tax.

“My concern with finding an interim is that it becomes a reason for us not to face up to what needs to be done long term,” he said. “That’s why my suggestion is, we just should not take ideas off the table because that becomes essentially a stalemate of action.”

Witnesses – as they detailed the positives and negatives of various options ranging from reduced spending on highways and transit to repatriation for U.S. companies – urged lawmakers to act.

Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, said the funding uncertainty put states in a tough spot. Just this year, 19 states have stated concerns about the feasibility of future transportation projects and another seven have delayed or canceled projects, he noted.

“You can’t cut the investment in the nation’s infrastructure,” said Graves, now the president and CEO of American Trucking Associations. “We are going to lose our competitive edge as a country if we don’t figure this one out.”

Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, said Congress must set meaningful priorities for spending.

“We should ask which aspects of trust fund spending are truly federal in nature versus state and local,” he said.