GOP transportation bill cuts spending, Dems on the offensive

| 7/7/2011

Republican leadership on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unveiled their plan for a multiyear authorization bill on Thursday, July 7. While it’s not a bill yet, the proposal strives to cut transportation spending and relies on the private sector to make up any shortfalls. Committee Democrats say they’ve been shut out of the drafting process thus far.

T&I Committee Chairman John Mica, R-FL, is calling for a federal contribution of $230 billion over six years for things like highways, bridges, railways, ports, motor carrier safety and related programs. That’s less than half of what committee members had discussed prior to the 2008 elections.

Mica says that federal contribution could leverage an additional $35 billion per year from the private sector to cover the shortfalls.

“Given U.S. House rules and budget constraints, this proposal maximizes the value of our available infrastructure funding through better leveraging, streamlining the project approval process, attracting private sector investment, and cutting the federal bureaucracy,” Mica said in a statement. “Most importantly, this six-year proposal provides the stability states need to plan major transportation improvements and create long-term jobs.”

So far, the Republican proposal would eliminate 70 federal transportation programs as part of a streamlining effort.

The conversion of existing interstates to toll roads is not on the agenda, Mica said, although he added later that he would like to see a demonstration program that allows up to three interstate facilities to be tolled. New lanes and new capacity are fair game for tolling, he said.

The plan includes $1 billion a year in federal grant money to leverage private-sector dollars for so-called innovative projects. Such projects may include congestion relief, managed toll lanes, railways and buses.

Mica’s plan does not raise fuel taxes or specifically call for a tax on vehicle miles traveled, he said, but other committees will help determine the way to pay for the bill.

If enacted, the plan would give more authority to states to decide whether to form their own infrastructure banks to pay for large-scale projects.

Toll road leasing, reminiscent of the 2006 deal that handed the Indiana Toll Road over to private investors in exchange for cash, would remain on the table and be a state decision.

OOIDA leadership is reviewing the proposal and awaiting actual bill language.

“They’re talking about reducing spending from the Highway Trust Fund, but they’re also saying they’ll spend money on things other than highways and bridges, which we are opposed to,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said.

In addition to funding, transportation authorization bills also include safety and regulatory provisions. Some of interest to truckers include vehicle size and weight, electronic on-board recorders, cross-border trucking, truck parking and driver training.

“We haven’t seen the motor carrier safety title yet,” Spencer said. “I would say our concerns haven’t changed a whole lot.”

Democrats on the T&I Committee called their own press conference following the Republican event, saying they’ve been shut out of the talks so far on a long-term bill.

“While we have yet to see much of the details of this legislation, based on the funding levels alone it appears that this bill can best be called the ‘Republican Road to Ruin’ because it would take our nation in the wrong direction,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-WV, ranking member of the T&I Committee.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, said this is the first time in his 34 years on the committee that he’s seen the Republicans and Democrats so far apart on transportation.

“America must not be left behind as the rest of the world makes significant investments in 21st century transportation systems,” DeFazio stated. “We need a transportation plan that puts Americans back to work, improves our crumbling infrastructure, and helps get our economy back on track.”

The U.S. Senate has yet to come forward with its version of a transportation bill, but leaders say they’re close to doing that.

Word on Capitol Hill is that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will soon unveil a two-year authorization bill worth $109 billion.