NEW YORK, Oct. 28--House and Senate transportation officials hold out doubts that a proposed 2¢ fuel tax increase that would pump up federal highway funding by $5 billion a year to $60 billion in 2009 will pass Congress in fiscal year 2003. But the Capital Hill representatives promised members of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association Monday at their midyear meeting in New York City that legislators would work to speed up permission to use new building technology, streamline environmental processes and smooth out revenue alignment discrepancies. "Tax increases are going to be hard to push through," said Martin Whittmer, acting deputy chief of staff for U.S. DOT Secretary Norman Mineta. "The war on terrorism is competing for funds."

ARTBA has been advocating a "pay-as-you-go" system that would collect only the amount of user fee revenue necessary in a given year to cover the federal government's cash outlays for the highway and mass transit programs. Under the current budgeting of trust fund revenue, user revenue is "warehoused" in the Highway Trust Fund for up to seven years before it is spent, ARTBA points out. It also advocates adjusting each year's gas tax rate according to the revenue of the previous year.

Ruth Van Mark, minority staff director for the House transportation subcommittee, said that the situation may be ripe for the highway trust fund to go off-budget altogether. "If we could remove thetrust fund [from the general budget] there would be no arguments, and you would be able to truly control the spending."

Graham Hill, counsel for the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said the group hopes to introduce legislation that would shorten the research and development cycle of new technology so that applying innovative materials and methods would take three or four years rather than 18 to 20. He also predicted that the 2003 transportation legislation will include a focus on transit programs for aging Americans.

Most highway, building and transportation groups officially support the bid to regain the fuel tax revenue lost due to lowered taxes on use of ethanol via user fees. Clyde Woodle, Senate highway and transit subcommittee director, says that bid is contained in a Senate energy bill. But Whittmer said that pushing that through will be "difficult," though "it hasn't been rejected yet."