FORT SMITH — A redesigned Highway Trust Fund is one of the biggest challenges facing the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a variety of options are being reviewed to pay for it.

FORT SMITH — A redesigned Highway Trust Fund is one of the biggest challenges facing the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a variety of options are being reviewed to pay for it.


Options include repatriation of offshore corporate taxes, a rising price index on the gas tax, and oil exploration and production off shore and on federal lands. But, states that pay a larger share of the projects could get put on the fast track to approval.


In a roundtable discussion with Western Arkansas Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority board members Monday night in Fort Smith, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, noted that Arkansas pays for a larger share of its transportation projects with state funds. Womack sits on the House Appropriations Committee.


"A lot of states including Arkansas have been saying ‘We don’t have time to wait for this, so we’re going to put up 60 or 65 percent and take a 40 percent piece from the federal government and move forward,’" Shuster said. "I think we ought to be rewarding states that are doing that and get those projects moving quicker."


Womack and Shuster said their goal is to get a five- to six-year Highway Trust Fund bill passed next year to create some "certainty" for large ongoing projects like a 13-mile stretch of Interstate 49 and a bridge across the Arkansas River at Alma, which have a combined estimate of $550 million. The longer it is put off, the more it will cost, Womack added.


"We have to figure out the funding, and there are a number of different options on the table, and that will determine the five- to six-year bill," Shuster said. "Once we do that, states can say ‘OK there’s X amount of dollars in that trust fund, now let’s start allocating.’"


How exactly to pay for the highway bill is still being debated. Shuster said U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, was in support of repatriating offshore corporate taxes to help fund the highway bill. Other options being considered include oil and gas exploration taxes.


"We made a proposal last time for opening up of oil exploration and production off the East and West coasts and our federal lands," Shuster said. "Those dollars from leases and royalties, 80 percent of that oil will end up in the transportation system, so it makes sense to put those dollars in the trust fund."


RITA board member Keith Hefner said extending the interstate system would help economic recovery in the Fort Smith region and asked for further advice on the appropriations process.


Womack and Shuster noted that in the next highway bill they want to refocus dollars on freight corridors as a priority.