U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg acknowledged on Thursday that raising the federal gas tax will be one of the options to fund “major investments” needed for highway infrastructure.
“I think all options need to be on the table,” Buttigieg said during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
“The current state of the highway trust fund [HTF] is that there’s more going out than coming in, and up until now that’s been addressed with general funding transfers. I don’t know whether Congress would want to continue doing that. I think in the near term we need a solution that can provide some predictability and sustainability. In the long term, we need to bear in mind that as vehicles become more efficient and we pursue electrification, sooner or later there will be questions about whether the gas tax can be effective at all.”
The American Trucking Associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have advocated for raising the gas tax 5 cents a year for four years and adjusting it for inflation thereafter.
Pressed further on the HTF by lawmakers, Buttigieg said he would be open to continue funding it by transferring money from the U.S. Treasury general fund “if there’s an appetite for it.” However, “if we’re committed to the idea of user pays, part of how you might do that would be based on vehicle miles traveled. But that raises concerns about privacy, and there remains technical issues as well. It’s going to have to be a conversation not only in the administration but with Congress too.”
During the nearly three-hour hearing, Buttigieg linked the Biden administration’s infrastructure goals to the economy, including the potential to create jobs, and to climate policy.
“The president has made it very clear that he expects all of us to work on delivering a new climate vision, and certainly DOT has a big part in this,” Buttigieg said. “You think about the role involved in fuel economy standards, vehicle electrification, what we’d have to do as a country to have a charging station infrastructure. I think these will have to be contemplated as a central feature of any infrastructure package.”
Buttigieg was questioned about the Trump administration’s determination, made under former DOT Secretary Elaine Chao in 2018, that found federal hours-of-service laws for truck drivers preempted California’s stricter meal and rest break laws. The determination was upheld last week in federal appeals court.
“I’d want to look more into some of the specific case law that you’re discussing, but certainly recognizing the importance of consistency and predictability,” Buttigieg stated in responding to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. — leaving open the possibility of the new administration reversing course on federal preemption. “The key of course is squaring that with the fundamental mission of safety.”
Buttigieg was also asked about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s recent pilot program proposal to collect data on splitting the 10-hour sleeper berth rest time into 6/4 and 5/5 periods. “I’d want to take a closer look at this and engage with the stakeholders as well to make sure I understand how this pilot program squares the goals of worker and traveler safety with the goal of flexibility,” he said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked Buttigieg if he agreed there needed to be a “significant increase” in competitive grant programs within DOT to pay for infrastructure improvements, particularly those aimed at moving U.S. exports more efficiently. “Absolutely there needs to be a major investment in order to deliver,” he said.
Cantwell asked if he supported the Jones Act, a 100-year-old domestic maritime shipping law that requires ships moving between U.S. ports be flagged and built in the U.S., as well as crewed by American seafarers.
“I share your support for the Jones Act; it is so important to the maritime industry and creates hundreds of thousands of jobs as well as the U.S. shipbuilding industry.”