Mineta says Bush still opposes gas-tax hike

As Congress resumes work on the long-stalled successor to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta says he opposes extending the highway and transit programs for one or two years. Instead, he's pushing for a multi-year bill whose funding is close to the $247-billion "SAFETEA" measure he proposed last year.

Speaking Jan. 22 at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting, in Washington, D.C., Mineta said, "There is no governor or any mayor who can do any planning if we have only a one- or two-year bill....So I am fighting this one- or two-year concept." He noted that some see extending TEA-21 for a year or two as an easy solution to the problems that have blocked a multi-year bill so far on Capitol Hill. But Mineta, himself a former mayor of San Jose, Calif., disagreed, saying, "It is not an easy way out."

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He also indicated that while a multi-year bill somewhat higher than SAFETEA's $247-billion funding level might be acceptable, the Bush administration thinks the $375-billion plan introduced by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) and the $312-billion figure that Senate committees support are too high. "We can't hop, skip and jump from the legislation we have submitted" to the higher levels contained those other proposals, he told the mayors. Many engineering and construction industry groups strongly back Young's plan.

Mineta said that attaining the funding level Young is seeking would require an increase in the federal gasoline tax of five cents a year, plus indexing the tax to account for inflation. Reiterating the Bush administration's long-held position, Mineta warned, "The President does not want to see an increase in gasoline taxes."

The apparent stalemate over whether and how to raise revenue for the new bills caused TEA-21 to lapse last Sept. 30. Congress then passed a five-month extension that keeps highway and transit aid flowing through Feb. 29.

Some further action on a multi-year bill may take place in the Senate Banking and Finance Committees the week of Jan. 26, but few believe a new, multi-year bill will be enacted by the end of February. That would necessitate another extension of so-far undetermined length.

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Transportation)