At a March 12 press conference, Young and the committee's top Democrat, James Oberstar of Minnesota, reiterated their proposal to have the coming transportation measure provide $375 billion over six years for highways and transit. That would be a jump of more than 70% from the $218 billion provided by current statute, the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. TEA-21 expires on Sept. 30.

The 18.4 cent per gal. federal gasoline tax hasn't been increased since 1993, and Young said that indexing that levy and the other motor fuels taxes would add about $75 billion to the Highway Trust Fund over six years. But Young then said, "We can't make it retroactive. We want to try to make it proactive." A committee aide, however, said Young wasn't "backtracking" on the funding option.

Indexing the levy for inflation, but only in future years, would mean a hike of about a half-cent per gal. annually, a committee aide says.

Other options the committee is mulling include:

  • Drawing down the Highway Trust Fund's balance, which Young says is about $18 billion now. He didn't specify how much of that balance he would tap, but it certainly would not be the entire $18 billion.
  • Reclaiming for the trust fund the interest on its balance, which would raise an estimated $12 billion to $14 billion over six years.
  • Doing away with fuels tax evasion, which would bring in $3 billion to $4 billion
  • Reimbursing the fund for revenue it loses from the 5.2 cent difference between the tax rate on gasoline and gasohol, adding $7 billion to $8 billion.

Young adds, "We're not closing the door on any other suggestions." For example, he raised the idea of imposing a fee of $200 on each freight container that enters U.S. ports.

But other House GOP colleagues may resist indexing or other forms of a fuels tax increase, particular with prices at the pump climbing. Young acknowledges, "It's going to be a long battle. It's not going to be easy."

He says he has been discussing the transportation bill with House GOP leaders. "I have been in deep negotiations with them the last two weeks....They told me they're going to allow us to raise the dollars." Young also said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) "indicated to me he is willing to help."

Without a straight gas tax increase or indexing, other revenue raising options will fall short of Young's funding target, a staffer says. "It's not enough to start doing anything substantive to the system."

"I'm not going sell this as a tax," Young said. "It's a user fee. People are going to be willing to pay that users' fee if they know it's going to be used for transportation."

s he weighs options for providing more than $150 billion in new money for the next transportation funding measure, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) seems to be moving away from one big potential revenue-raiser: an initial hike of more than 5 cents per gallon in the federal fuels tax to make up for 10 years of inflation. But his panel is studying a range of other steps to gain increased funds.