Rep. John Mica, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, last week introduced legislation to extend by three months federal authority for highway and transit programs that are scheduled to expire on March 31.
The House leadership is expected to bring the measure to the floor for a vote this week.
Congress has passed eight extensions to maintain the status quo since the last multiyear framework for surface transportation policy and spending ended in September 2009. Earlier this month, the Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion bill reauthorizing Department of Transportation programs for highway infrastructure and safety, as well as transit. An extension is necessary because there is not enough time for House members to resolve differences on a House version of the bill before the end of the month.
The starting point for the House is a five-year, $260 billion program approved earlier this year by Mica’s committee that maintains funding at existing levels, but doesn’t address the fundamental challenge of a shortage in the Highway Trust Fund due to a decline in fuel tax receipts in recent years. Instead, it saves money by streamlining programs and reducing overhead by simplifying the requirements for states to receive federal highway aid. Congress has propped up the trust fund to reimburse states for projects by transferring money from the general treasury account the past three years.
The Obama administration has proposed a $476 billion, six-year bill.
In a March 20 op-ed in The Hill newspaper, Mica said the Senate bill would deplete the Highway Trust Fund in a matter of months, forcing Congress to deliver another bailout or neglect infrastructure improvements that can create jobs.
Mica’s reauthorization bill would, among other things, consolidate or eliminate federal highway programs to achieve better safety, environmental and congestion outcomes; give states more flexibility on how to spend highway aid; accelerate the approval process for projects by reducing red tape; increase to $1 billion funding for the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program; and addresses problems with the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program to encourage small railroads to apply for loans.
In a statement, the T&I Committee chairman said Republicans would continue efforts to expand domestic energy production and use royalties and fees to support infrastructure investment. An extension ensures “continuity of current programs while I and House Republicans continue to work toward a responsible transportation bill that provides long-term certainty, reduces the size of government, eliminates earmarks and is fully paid for,” he said.
Mica, speaking at the annual spring conference of the American Association of Port Authorities the same day, said votes have to be won on the basis of policy because he doesn’t have the luxury of earmarks to dole out as favors for projects in members’ districts since the Republican leadership banned the practice this session. Last summer, Mica played hardball with Senate Democrats over the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, resulting in a two-week shutdown of non-essential programs. One of the concerns in the House is where the Senate bill gets its money since the Highway Trust Fund is depleted. Mica said Congress realizes the country can’t afford a shutdown of surface transportation projects because it would actually affect needed projects and the economy, not just government workers, and will pass the extension. He added that he is trying for a straight-forward, temporary bill without any extraneous riders.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, predicted to the seaport directors gathered in Washington that the House wouldn’t be able to produce its own long-term transportation bill and would simply “tweak” the Senate bill.
Last Wednesday, Senate Democrats and the Obama administration criticized the House for not moving on the Senate’s transportation bill. The senators raised the specter of a DOT shutdown and suspension of gas tax collections if the House didn’t act on its bill.
“We’re right on the eve of the spring construction season, and we need to put our friends and neighbors to work solving America’s transportation challenges. The economic ripples that would come from passing a bill like the Senate bill will put thousands of people to work,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in his Fast Lane blog. “It has been more than 900 days and eight extensions since the nation’s current transportation plan expired. With the latest extension due to lapse on March 31, it’s time for a bill – not another extension.”
A short-term extension does not resolve the funding uncertainty facing states so they can commit to large, long-term projects with the confidence that they will be reimbursed, LaHood wrote in The Hill.
Earlier this month, the Department of Transportation released its latest report on the condition and performance of the nation’s highways, bridges, and transit. It said that $101 billion per year, plus increases for inflation, is needed from all levels of government during the next 20 years simply to maintain the highway system in its current state. The report shows that in 2008, all levels of government spent $91.1 billion on highway capital improvements.
President Obama used his weekly radio address on Saturday to call on House lawmakers to pass a transportation bill. He warned “in a matter of days, funding will stop for all sorts of transportation projects. Construction sites will go idle. Workers will have to go home. And our economy will take a hit.”
“This Congress cannot let that happen. Not at a time when we should be doing everything in our power – Democrats and Republicans – to keep this recovery moving forward. The Senate did their part. They passed a bipartisan transportation bill. It had the support of 52 Democrats and 22 Republicans. Now it’s up to the House to follow suit; to put aside partisan posturing, end the gridlock, and do what’s right for the American people. ”
Obama said “all across this country, we’ve got contractors and construction workers who have never been more eager to get back on the job. A long term transportation bill would put them to work,” he said.
Obama contended that better transportation and communications infrastructure is needed to get “clean energy industries to locate here… so that any company can move goods and sell products all around the world as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
“So much of America needs to be rebuilt right now. We’ve got crumbling roads and bridges. A power grid that wastes too much energy. An incomplete high-speed broadband network. And we’ve got thousands of unemployed construction workers who’ve been looking for a job ever since the housing market collapsed,” he said. — Eric Kulisch and Chris Dupin