Inhofe wants to get highway bill through committee by Memorial Day (Photo courtesy of the office of Sen. James Inhofe)

New Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) says the federal highway program needs increased funding in the reauthorization bill due this year, but Inhofe says he doesn't support boosting the fuel tax to raise that additional revenue.

Speaking to reporters after the Jan. 29 organizational meeting of his panel, Inhofe said that passing the successor to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century is his top priority. The environment committee will take the lead in the Senate for the highway portion of that bill.

He told his committee colleagues he wants to increase the federal highway dollars for "donor" states like Oklahoma, whose motorists pay more in federal fuel taxes than they get back in highway aid. Donor states now are guaranteed at least a 90.5% return. Inhofe says, "I believe we should be able to increase that to 95%."

Though opposing a fuel-tax hike, Inhofe says he is open to other revenue-raising ideas. He says the 2.5 cents per gallon in gasohol taxes that now go to the general fund should be transferred to the Highway Trust Fund. "It's almost a moral issue," he declares, referring to ensuring that highway user fees go to transportation improvements.

In addition, he says that perhaps the 5.3-cent-per-gal. tax differential between gasohol and gasoline could be addressed. He also notes that some are looking at indexing the fuel tax to account for inflation and says, "That'll be on the table."

Inhofe says he's aiming to get a highway bill out of his committee by Memorial Day, and approved on the Senate floor by July. TEA-21 expires on Sept. 30.

On environmental issues, Inhofe says he will introduce President Bush's "Clear Skies" bill, at the administration's request. But Inhofe says Bush's bill "needs some work"--meaning some changes.

The first bill that the committee will consider will be a proposal sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) to deal with pollution from leaking underground storage tanks. Inhofe says the panel will vote on that measure by mid-February.