There’s a lot to like about Sen. John Barrasso’s bipartisan highway infrastructure bill.
It would add $287 billion to federal highway funding, including nearly $1.9 billion for Wyoming over the next five years. Those funds are desperately needed here and across the nation and would mark progress toward the only 2016 campaign promise by Donald Trump I liked: investing in our country’s infrastructure.
The American Transportation Infrastructure Act was passed 21-0 last week by the panel Barrasso chairs, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. That’s an impressive result in a session that has rarely seen Republicans and Democrats agree.
So I hate to be the spoilsport, but…
Maybe it’s my unlikely fiscal conservative emerging as I get older, but I’m not going to be comfortable supporting the measure until we know how it’s going to be paid for. It’s got to be done right, and that’s just not the way it’s headed now.
Barrasso’s bill is a good blueprint for the end goal — more federal highway dollars — but it leaves finding a route to that vital destination up to the Senate Finance Committee.
Barrasso has long wanted to remove subsidies for electric vehicles, and make their owners pay to register them. That’s precisely the wrong direction we need to go to create better transit systems that combat climate change by helping reduce carbon emissions.
The federal government needs to keep encouraging domestic manufacturers to make electric vehicles, not make them more expensive to drive. Total elimination of the tax credit and slapping on a registration fee is Barrasso’s idea of “leveling the playing field” for owners of gas-powered and electric vehicles, but there are several problems with his concept.
First, the $7,500 tax credit for buying a vehicle powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells has helped reduce carbon emissions, but it’s really just a start. This isn’t the time to cut it off. Yes, there are a million EVs on the nation’s roads, but if the U.S. is going to reach its zero emissions goal, that’s a relatively small amount of progress.
It’s like telling a football team that it’s great it made it from the 1-yard line to its own 5, but now it must punt the ball on second down to make everything “fair.”
Current law already starts to phase out the EV tax subsidies. When a manufacturer sells 200,000 vehicles the tax credit is incrementally lowered until it completely disappears. Tesla hit the 200,000 mark last year, and its subsidy is scheduled to end next year.
One legislative proposal would directly counter Barrasso’s plan by getting rid of the 200,000 cap and continuing the subsidy for big sellers. Another would remove the cap but end all tax credits by 2022.
Consumer and environmental groups have joined forces with GM, Tesla and Nissan to form the Electric Vehicle Coalition, which is pushing for removing the arbitrary 200,000 sales cap.
More American consumers would buy electric vehicles if the cars were affordably priced. Thus far the tax credit has been instrumental in lowering prices for customers and encouraging EV manufacturers to keep investing in expensive technological upgrades to improve their products.
If lawmakers want to stop EV innovation in its tracks — and drastically curb auto companies’ efforts to compete in a hyper-competitive global marketplace — they should support Barrasso’s plan.
Years ago, General Motors sunk millions into research to develop an electric vehicle, the EV1, only to turn around and successfully keep the technology from being used so gas-guzzling cars and trucks would continue the fossil fuel industry’s vice-like grip on our country.
“Who Killed the Electric Car?” is an amazing 2006 documentary that covers the outrageous sham perpetrated on American consumers when auto manufacturers, the oil industry and the Bush administration thwarted the electric revolution by filing countless lawsuits.
Prematurely removing an EV tax credit would have the same effect.
There is a way, however, to raise the money for Barrasso’s bill and advance smart climate policy. If Congress wants to increase federal funds for highway construction and maintenance and bail out states like Wyoming that haven’t been able to adequately improve their highway systems, it should significantly raise federal taxes on gasoline and diesel.
Congress has not increased the federal taxes on gasoline or diesel since 1993, leaving it up to states to raise fuel taxes to help pay for road construction and maintenance. That hasn’t worked out well in Wyoming, where the Department of Transportation estimates a $135 million annual shortfall in its efforts to adequately fix the state’s highways.
Wyoming raised its state gasoline and diesel taxes by a dime per gallon in 2014. Since then about 30 states have increased their fuel taxes.
The Joint Revenue Committee is working on a bill that would add 3 cents per gallon next year, but it will have a tough time making it through the state Senate, which has vehemently opposed any tax increases in recent years.
In addition to creating a much bigger pot of highway money, a federal fuels tax hike would also encourage consumers to make the switch to electric vehicles. Barrasso’s opposition to a tax hike on carbon-based fuels and his support of requiring EV owners to pay an additional registration fee only ensures that the fossil fuels industry keeps playing an outsized role in our economy — and our politics — into the future.
And it will freeze the efforts of innovative auto manufacturers to improve the environment in their tracks.
I don’t want to sell Barrasso’s ATIA bill short. It would be good for Wyoming, making $1.6 billion available in new rural transportation grants and an additional $247 million for smaller road projects. It’s the best news the grossly underfunded WYDOT has had in years.
The measure also throws a significant bone to Democratic lawmakers by channeling $10 billion to reduce emissions and increase the resilience of infrastructure so that it will better stand up to the impacts of climate change.
“We know that the cars, trucks and vans that we drive have now become our nation’s largest source of global warming pollution,” Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on Barrasso’s committee, told The Washington Post. “These emissions accelerate and exacerbate the effect of climate change, contributing to the increasingly extreme weather events that contribute significantly to the degradation of our roadways and our bridges.”
Barrasso’s bill is paved with good intentions, but the devil is still in the details. Frankly, it made me nervous when Wyoming’s junior senator promised The Post that his transportation bill will “speed up project delivery, cut Washington red tape, so that projects can be done faster and better and cheaper and smarter.”
I’m all for removing unnecessary roadblocks to better transportation infrastructure. I want to see the cost of projects reduced, and if the bill contains enough money to improve technology to make our massive highway infrastructure safer, count me in.
But some of that D.C. “red tape” likely includes environmental and safety regulations that help protect millions of motorists. I don’t want crumbling bridges to be replaced with structures that will topple because highway departments were given the green light to move full speed ahead and lower safety standards by not considering environmental impacts.
Barrasso’s bill definitely merits further consideration. But let’s not create a funding scheme that discourages more electric vehicles and handicaps our essential move toward zero emissions.