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The new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure will showcase freight policy issues for a new highway bill and perhaps his own experience with them, in a roundtable discussion this afternoon on building out the nation’s freight network. 

That will be one of the first steps by Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., toward leaving his mark on this year’s surface transportation legislation, along with ranking subcommittee Republican  John Barrasso of Wyoming.

They will be joined by Connecticut Democrat  Richard Blumenthal  and Roy Blunt , R-Mo., who are the chairman and ranking member of the Commerce, Science and  Transportation subcommittee that has jurisdiction over transportation safety. The witness list for the 4 p.m. session also includes various transportation industry and state DOT officials to pitch for their preferred freight policies.

The Delaware Democrat will play the key role, and could have an outsized influence on whatever highway legislation the Environment and Public Works Committee churns out in the coming weeks.

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer , D-Calif., has already promised a “basic” bill that would authorize federal road, bridge and transit programs for another six years at current spending levels plus inflation. That is much more constrained that the Transportation Department’s proposal, but paying for it will still be a problem for the tax-writing Finance Committee to solve.

The Highway Trust Fund’s revenue stream is on the skids compared with the project costs it is committed to pay out, and on course to start causing the Transportation Department by late July to slow payments to states for construction costs coming due.

Carper could help find a solution to both writing a bill reauthorizing highway and transit programs, and funding it. Like his predecessor, Montana Democrat Max Baucus , Carper is also a member of the Finance Committee.

But unlike Baucus, Carper served nearly a decade as governor of a state that deals with nearly every pressing transportation need that exists nationwide.

In Delaware’s northern tier, a heavily traveled Delaware Turnpike connects vehicles between the dense metro areas of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Wilmington and its suburbs have their own burgeoning transit needs. And a multistate bridge authority connects Delaware with New Jersey, as users pay for it through tolls.

Downstate, residential growth in exurban areas including Middletown are stretching highway dollars as transportation planners try to keep up with newcomers.

Over the past decades, the state has also had to pave much of its own path forward on expanding capacity to reach its heavily visited beaches without busting its modest transportation budget. As governor, Carper helped oversee a major expansion of the state’s Route 1, a tolled expressway connecting the capital of Dover and the coast with population centers in the north.

Tolling has largely been a success for Delaware, as traffic on its major roads far exceeds what its home-state population would generate absent user fees from its dense neighbors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Carper’s hands-on experience using such a financing mechanism, along with the Obama administration’s  embrace of tolling  in its new highway proposal, make it more likely current restrictions to new tolling could be lifted as part of a new bill.

Trucking companies, though, could put help slow any push toward tolling. Dave Osiecki, the American Trucking Associations’ executive vice president, said Tuesday that the Obama proposal relied too much on “looking for the proverbial ‘nickels in the couch cushions.’”

The ATA criticized the administration’s plan to cover trust fund obligations with a corporate tax overhaul as well as tolls and public-private partnerships.

Carper brings home-state experience on such issues to his freight roundtable today, and to both the Environment and Public Works and Finance committees as they craft the programs and budget offsets for the next surface transportation bill.