DOT Secretary Mineta (left, center at table) and other top transportation officials, charged with reviewing surface transport policy and financing (Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Transportation)

At the initial meeting of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, held May 24 at U.S. Dept. of Transportation headquarters, the 12-member panel heard sobering evaluations about the health of the Highway Trust Fund, which has prompted a search for other financing avenues.

DOT Secretary Norman Mineta, whom Congress directed to chair the new panel, said, "Transportation systems and how they should be funded the purpose of this commission. By addressing those issues the commission will be answering two essential questions--how much...and what kind?"

Mineta also noted that the trust fund "is at risk," and added that a main reason for setting up the panel "is the recognition that a trust fund-based funding system may be insufficient for the future of the system."

The meeting is just the start of months of work for the panel, which was established in last year's Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The group, which includes senior officials from state and local government, the private sector and academia, is on a tight schedule. SAFETEA-LU says the commission's report is due by July 1, 2007. But even at the opening session, the possibility of asking Congress for an extension was raised.

Congress clearly wants the commission's work in hand before it begins to draft the next big transportation authorization bill sometime before 2009, when SAFETEA-LU expires.

Because of the state of the trust fund, SAFETEA-LU's successor cannot be "a business-as-usual bill," said commissioner Jack Schenendorf, an attorney and former chief staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The trust fund, he said, "is essentially bankrupt." A recent projection shows the fund's highway account dipping into the red at the end of fiscal year 2009.

One obvious, but politically unpopular, way to bolster the trust fund is to increase the federal gasoline tax, which last was hiked in 1993 and now stands at 18.4¢ per gallon.

In the lengthy debate over SAFETEA-LU, Mineta maintained the Bush administration's position against increasing the federal motor fuels tax. But in his role as commission chairman, Mineta said, "I do want people to check their agendas at the door, including me." He added, "My job is really to steer the commission and to help it blend its thoughts and come to a conclusion for the production of a final report....I'm not here to be imposing solutions."

Some members, such as Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, urged that the panel not neglect its charge to review transportation policy.

The commission plans to have a teleconference meeting in early June and a two-day session later that month, Mineta said.

Panel members termed the commission a historic event, with commissioner Mary Peters, former head of the Federal Highway Administration and now national director for transportation policy and consulting with engineering firm HDR, termed it a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. Speakers hearkened back to the Clay Committee, which is credited with helping to lay the groundwork for legislation that set up the Interstate Highway System in 1956.

Whether the new transportation commission will have a similar impact depends on what it eventually recommends--and whether lawmakers in Congress embrace those findings.

congressionally mandated commission has launched a year-long effort to study whether to revamp the structure of federal highway, transit and other surface transportation programs and change the way those systems are financed.