To spend or not to spend: addressing the federal role in transportation

| 6/20/2011

As America’s road and bridge network continues to age, the question is not if the infrastructure will need to be replaced, but when. Even with that inevitability on the table, Capitol Hill is a house divided on spending levels.

Rep. John Mica, R-FL, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, plans to cut back on government spending and open up more opportunities for private-sector investment and tolling for road and bridge upgrades.

Mica and Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman John J. Duncan, R-TN, plan to roll out their version of a multiyear surface transportation bill any day now.

Other than their stated motto of “doing more with less,” Mica and Duncan have not tipped their hand as to what their transportation bill will entail.

That has a few people worried, especially the ranking Democrats on their committees who say they’ve not been privy to the drafting process to this point.

Reps. Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Peter DeFazio of Oregon, who are the ranking Democrats on the T&I Committee and the Highways and Transit Subcommittee respectively, are urging Mica and Duncan to call meetings of the “Big Four” to draft the bill together.

“Historically, the strength of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has been the ability to work together to address the nation’s transportation needs,” Rahall and DeFazio wrote in a letter to committee leadership dated Tuesday, June 14.

“As you recall, the last Congress, there were numerous meetings ‘Big-Four’ meetings, as well as significant staff work that went into the development of the (draft bill).”

Rahall and DeFazio acknowledged the need for more private-sector involvement in transportation infrastructure, but other than that they differ with the Mica-Duncan plan to reduce the federal role.

“A strong, consistent, and reliable federal commitment to infrastructure investment is critical …,” Rahall and DeFazio stated.

On the Senate side, the Democrats and Republicans do not appear to be as divided on transportation, at least in the public eye. But that doesn’t mean they’re any closer than the House to releasing their draft of an authorization bill.

Even after it’s introduced, the Senate version must run a gauntlet of committees with jurisdiction over various aspects of transportation including Environment and Public Works; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Banking; and Finance.

At last count, EPW Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-CA, and ranking Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma were also touting early-to-mid July to roll out their version of the bill.

OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Ryan Bowley anticipates some fireworks in the debates over regulations as well as funding.

“Things are already lining up for this to be an interesting process,” he said.

“We’re likely to see some reduction in spending levels coming out of the House, so it’s important that in this reprioritization that we keep a focus on highway infrastructure.”

OOIDA will form its opinions once a bill or bills are filed.

“We need to see what the bills look like,” Bowley said. “We want to make sure that both the House and Senate recognize the importance of our nation’s highway system.”

“Just like so many OOIDA members have to do with financial challenges on the business side, you have to have a conversation about priorities,” Bowley added.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, says the Republicans’ priorities include reducing 2012’s discretionary spending limits to “pre-stimulus, pre-bailout” levels enacted in 2008.

In a letter addressed to the House Republican Conference, Cantor is promoting a $30 billion cut across 11 of the 12 discretionary appropriations the Congress makes. That includes a $7.7 billion cut for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. Despite the cuts to nearly all of the discretionary programs, national defense would actually get a $17 boost according to Cantor’s letter.