U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said during a visit to Fort Smith Tuesday (Aug. 19) that while he is against higher taxes, the gasoline tax that funds the Highway Trust Fund should be re-worked as a "percentage" versus a "centage" tax in order to keep infrastructure projects moving forward across the nation.
Inhofe, a senior member of the Senate's Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, was in Fort Smith with U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., to see the area's infrastructure needs and to meet with the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority for a question and answer session Tuesday morning. The meeting was held at the Arkansas River Valley Nature Center at Chaffee Crossing.
The statement by Oklahoma's senior senator was in response to a question by RITA board member George Moschner, an executive vice president of risk management and compliance at Baldor Electric Co., about how to secure funding to complete the section of Interstate 49 between Alma and Chaffee Crossing. The section would include a bridge across the Arkansas River and is estimated to at least $350 million.
Inhofe first said locals must get the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to make completion of that section of I-49 its number one priority in order to get the attention of Washington.
"The second thing is you're going to see coming up between now and May a funding mechanism that is going to change the way we're looking at funding our roads and highways. And again, this is not an announcement on my part because I still am going to maintain opposition to any new tax increases. However, I don't see that. It's more of a user fee than a tax increase and it's going to have to affect that. So those are two things that are going to have to happen before (that stretch of I-49can be funded)."
The federal gas tax has not been raised by Congress since 1993 and stands at 18.4 cents per gallon, though diesel fuel is taxed at 24.4 cents per gallon. Boozman, Arkansas' junior senator who serves on the EPW Committee with Inhofe, echoed the Oklahoman's sentiments regarding re-tooling funding. The federal Highway Trust Fund recently came close to insolvency before a short-term funding bill extended funding until May 2015.
"The problem, as you know more than anybody, is the Highway Trust Fund is not solvent right now because cars get much better gas mileage than they used to,” Boozman said. “With the downturn in the economy (and) high fuel prices, people just aren't driving as much. That impacts the state, as well as the federal government. So as Jim alluded to, we're going to have to figure out how we can get a revenue stream in there to support that and there's going to be a lot of controversy about that, but in the end we're going to have to come together and actually get that done."
As the senators took questions from RITA board members, the conversation shifted to maintenance issues with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Arkansas River.
Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack questioned what could be done to fix the funding backlog for maintenance along the river's navigation system since several locks are at increasing chance of failure.
Inhofe laid the blame at the feet of President Barack Obama.
"Of course you know there's an overall funding problem we've had with this administration and everything that is really worthwhile – the military, for example, has taken a huge unbelievable hit under (the) Obama administration – some of you in here probably don't believe me. … The money is all going to places that are all part of the environmentalist crazy activity that's taking place right now."
He pointed to Obama's unsuccessful attempts at passing cap and trade legislation and the Environmental Protection Agency's push to decrease pollution by energy producers.
"When you talk about getting more done with the Corps of Engineers or with roads and highways, you're not getting any help with this administration. The good news is … yeah, I'm going to say it — Republicans are going to take over the United States Senate this next time and you're going to see some changes in the perspective. … The Corps of Engineers, which is your question, is the typical example. That is doing constructive things to build America and this administration didn't want that."
Boozman said while maintenance of locks and other infrastructure along the river's navigation system is important, the first priority must be dealing with the three rivers — the Arkansas, Mississippi, and White Rivers — in eastern Arkansas which could breach and close the entire navigation system for an extended period.
Inhofe, who told the local audience he expects to take chairmanship of the EPW Committee should Republicans re-take the Senate in November, said his proposal for a transportation bill that would alter funding for the Highway Trust Fund would also allow for private-public partnerships to address local and national infrastructure needs.
Boozman added that the days of the federal government funding all infrastructure projects "are over," noting that partnerships will also need to be developed with local governments.
"You can't be short sighted. You do have to spend some money. it does have to come from someplace, but I would argue that if you're going to grow and become the state that we want to be, we're certainly going to work hard to get federal funding here but you're going to have to work really hard to get everybody in government — city, county, and state — to try to get as much money as we can into these projects."
Sebastian County Judge David Hudson asked what RITA and other local governments could do to ensure projects of significance in the Fort Smith region, namely the I-49 project between Alma and Chaffee Crossing, receive funding.
Without providing specifics, Inhofe said the answer would come before a vote is taken on a final transportation bill in May, which Boozman said could be a five-year bill that would provide funding for a variety of projects nationally.
The meeting Tuesday was organized by Matt Sagely of Washington, D.C.-based The Normandy Group. The organization to date has been paid $20,100 to organize meetings between RITA and leaders in Washington as the group lobbies for funding of transportation projects of regional significance.