As the debate over a new highway-transit bill heats up, construction and transportation officials are keeping a keen eye on Sen. Ron Wyden (D), the Finance Committee's new chairman. Wyden's panel will be at the center of the struggle to solve the legislation's toughest problem: finding the money to fund the new bill and rescue the struggling Highway Trust Fund.
The Oregon Democrat became Senate Finance chair on Feb. 12, succeeding Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who was confirmed on Feb. 6 as U.S. ambassador to China. Wyden has yet to say how he will address the trust fund and the new transportation bill, which would succeed the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21.
As industry officials await word from Wyden about his plans, they take comfort in his strong transportation background. "He is certainly very knowledgeable on infrastructure issues," says Greg Cohen, American Highway Users Alliance president. Wyden, elected to the Senate in 1996, spent eight years on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees highway policy, and then moved to the Finance Committee in 2005.
Wyden has pushed infrastructure bonds. He was a prime architect of the 2009-10 Build America Bonds program, through which states and localities issued $181 billion in federally subsidized bonds for public works.
He also has proposed various types of infrastructure bonds that would give investors tax credits instead of interest payments. For example, he introduced a bill, in 2013, to set up tax-credit Transportation and Regional Infrastructure Project bonds, totaling $50 billion over six years.
However, that didn't make it into MAP-21. But now, says Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association senior vice president, "I definitely think, because he has been supportive of that for such a long time, we can expect ... that is one funding option that he is going to be looking very carefully at."
Speaking of Wyden's bond concepts, David Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president, says, "They've all been ways to supplement core investments," rather than substitutes for the mainstay gas tax. Cohen says Wyden's bond ideas "can help to supplement a phase-in on a gas-tax [hike] or some other, more sustainable revenue source that can fund a six-year bill."
Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president, says Wyden "really understands the substance of the issues surrounding highway and transit financing. And, however this plays out, I think he will be a good champion for making sure that this issue gets addressed."