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Group looking for way to improve nation’s highways

Group looking for way to improve nation’s highways

McAlester News Capitol

Aug. 27, 2009

Fix the roads, but no new taxes

By James Beaty
Senior Editor

With the Federal Highway Trust Fund running out of gas, members of Congress and state transportation officials gathered at the Southeast Expo Center in McAlester on Wednesday to try and find the best way to fill it up again.

A non-profit coalition known as Restore TRUST — for Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation —sponsored the event.

TRUST advocates more funding for transportation. The group held the Wednesday meeting to hear suggestions on exactly how that might be accomplished.

Most of those present agreed that with Federal Highway Trust funds being depleted, a new funding mechanism is needed.

U.S. District 2 Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, District 5 Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma City, and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa were in agreement on what they do not want to do to raise funding.

All three said they were opposed to raising the federal highway tax in the midst of the current recession.

Asked before the meeting about a plan being floated to possibly tax people on the number of miles they drive, Boren said “I don’t support that.”

Boren said he gets questions about different funding mechanisms, but added “One thing I don’t support is raising taxes right now.”

Fallin, who plans on running for the Oklahoma governor’s post next year, told those assembled she also opposes any attempt to tax motorists based on the amount of miles they drive.

She elaborated on that following the meeting.

“It would be bad for Oklahomans and bad for the state, too,” she said.

Fallin noted that many Oklahomans live in rural areas and often have to commute long distances to work.

During the meeting, Inhofe said he expects work on passing an extension for the federal Highway Bill to resume as soon as the Senate returns into session in September.

The extension is needed because the current Highway Bill is expiring and the extension will keep funding in place while provisions are worked out for a new bill.

Inhofe said he and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, agreed on the matter. Inhofe called himself the most conservative member of the Senate and called Boxer the most liberal member.

Boxer is currently chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, while Inhofe is its ranking member. Its jurisdiction includes highway construction and maintenance.

They’ve already discussed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada the importance of working on extending the existing highway bill as soon as Congress returns to session, Inhofe said. The matter’s been given the green light, according to Inhofe.

“I’ve got Harry Reid’s word on it,” he said.

Oklahoma gets 85 percent of its funding for road and bridge projects from revenues from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, according to Oklahoma Department of Transportation Director Gary Ridley, who also attended the meeting.

The Federal Highway Trust Fund is derived from fuel taxes. Motorists in Oklahoma pay 18.3 cents per gallon in fuel taxes for each gallon of gasoline and 21 cents per gallon for diesel.

With higher fuel costs and people driving less because of the recession, that’s no longer enough, according to TRUST Executive Director Crystal Drwenski.

At the Meeting, Ridley lauded Oklahoma’s congressional delegation for working together on transportation issues.

“I think Oklahoma will be at the leadership level of getting something done,” he said.

TRUST Coalition President Neal McCaleb, the former state secretary of Transportation for former Gov. Frank Keating, also attended the meeting.

McCaleb said there is an alternative to higher fuel costs and when he asked what it is, many of those present answered in unison “natural gas.”

“I have a CNG (compressed natural gas) car but I didn’t drive it here, because there’s not a CNG station anywhere near here,” he said.

He said if cheaper fuel were available, people would likely do more driving, which would help replenish the highway fund.

Fallin also addressed compressed natural gas.

“Yesterday I had a hearing on cap and trade and I asked how much it would cost to convert a car for compressed natural gas,” she said.

Fallin said she was told it takes about $2,500 to convert a gasoline engine to one for compressed natural gas. That compares to the $4,500 the government gave to many car buyers through the Cash for Clunkers program, Fallin noted.

She said she wondered what would have happened if the money given to many car drivers through the Cash for Clunkers program had been offered instead for converting existing cars to using compressed natural gas.

Boren used two sentences to summarized his views for those present.

“No’ on cap and trade. ‘Yes’ on natural gas.”

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalester

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