Two nominees for senior U.S. Dept. of Transportation posts were among those who appeared before the Senate commerce committee at a confirmation hearing this week. Senators said the nominees, veteran transportation officials Victor Mendez and Peter Rogoff, were likely to be approved as DOT's deputy secretary and undersecretary for policy, respectively.
But much of the discussion dealt with Topic A in transportation circles: What to do about the ailing Highway Trust Fund? The fund 's highway account is expected to start showing a deficit in July or August, absent an infusion of new revenue.
Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said, "This is a very high-stakes game we're entering into—this question of 'Are we going to patch the Highway Trust Fund or we're going to patch it over for a longer period of time?'"
Rockefeller said, "We're certainly going to have a short-term patch to get us through the August crisis." He didn't say what that revenue "patch" would be.
Rockefeller added, "But then, the question is: Are we going to go for a bigger post-election, lame-duck solution? And we can do that. The election will be over...So I hope we can do that."
The committee's top Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, also noted the trust fund's situation. He said, "As we look toward a long-term solution, I hope we can come up with a short-term solution that at least addresses the immediate crisis in front of us—recognizing how important it is that we fund our transportation infrastructure in this country."
The DOT nominees both have been through many transportation battles. Mendez, Obama's pick to be deputy DOT Secretary, is serving in that post on an acting basis. Before that, he had led the Federal Highway Administration for more than four years. Previously Mendez was director of the Arizona DOT.
Rogoff, nominated to be under secretary for policy, has held the job on an acting basis since January. He had been the Federal Transit Administration's chief since 2009. Earlier, he spent more than a decade as a key aide to Democrats on the Senate transportation appropriations committee, including Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) and Patty Murray (Wash.).
Rockefeller asked the DOT nominees about the impact of the looming trust-fund deficit. Mendez said DOT would have to shift to "a different cash-management system," slowing down its reimbursement payments to state agencies. But he declined to provide more specifics.
Rogoff said that short-term funding would have another effect on nonfederal agencies. He said, "Local planners, local elected officials, [would] lose their vision, their willingness to tackle the big projects, because they don't know whether the cash is going to be there at the end."
Rogoff added that that could mean "a change in the mix of projects," as officials "take on smaller repaving projects [but] bridge replacement that's been deferred time and and time again gets deferred again, to the detriment of the system."
At the end of this Congress, Rockefeller will close his long political career, which includes five terms in the Senate. He noted the "tension" within Congress between desires to raise—or not to raise—the needed trust-fund revenue.
But Rockefeller's preference was clear. He said, "If you don't raise the revenues, you condemn yourself to a minimal future."