Mica eyes gas tax alternatives for infrastructure
Rep. John Mica on Wednesday said one of his top priorities, if elected by the Republican caucus to head the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, would be to pass a new multiyear surface transportation reauthorization bill focused on infrastructure renewal.
The Committee's ranking Republican issued a statement about his goals following the surprise defeat of Chairman James Oberstar after 36 years as a Minnesota congressman.
'My primary focus will be improving employment and expanding economic opportunities, doing more with less, cutting red tape and removing impediments to creating jobs, speeding up the process by which infrastructure projects are approved, and freeing up any infrastructure funding that's been sitting idle,' Mica said.
'Among my top legislative priorities will be passing a long-term federal highways and transit reauthorization, a long-overdue Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, a new water resources measure, and a long-term Coast Guard reauthorization.'
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the nation needs to spend $2.2 trillion over five years to bring the nation's infrastructure to an acceptable level and make necessary upgrades.
A fiscal conservative who has been critical of so-called 'tax-and-spend' policies, Mica said he would work hard to improve the efficiency of agencies under the committee's jurisdiction and better manage the cost of passenger rail transportation programs, including high-speed rail.
Mica and Oberstar agree on the importance of modernizing the nation's deteriorating infrastructure, but differ on how to pay for it. Oberstar was a staunch supporter of the economic stimulus bill while Mica complained the bill didn't target enough and didn't get transportation projects quickly completed, even though money has been obligated to states.
Oberstar also advocated raising the gas tax to fund surface transportation programs, while Mica is opposed to tax increases. The Obama administration nixed the idea last year and most lawmakers have avoided the issue.
Although the mid-term election cycle has passed, Mica doesn't expect the lame duck Congress or the new Congress in January to consider a fuel tax either.
'When they get back here after the election it's going to be like Hiroshima. They're going to walk around in awe and shock, suffering from radiation burns from the heat of the election. So they're not going to pass a gas tax increase,' a clairvoyant Mica said last May at a legislative symposium held on Capitol Hill by the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors.
Instead, Mica said he would propose doing away with the gas tax in favor of a sales tax on fuel to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund, as is done in several states. The tax could fluctuate within a predetermined range based on the total purchase price rather than on a per-gallon basis, which is unsustainable as vehicles become more fuel efficient, he suggested.
Republicans in Tuesday's election took back the House in convincing fashion, narrowed the gap in the Senate and did well in gubernatorial and state legislative races around the country, delivering a stinging defeat to the Democrats.
Lawmakers will be back in session next week to finish up leftover bills and elect the new leadership for next year.
Congress has a five-to-six month window in 2011 to get a surface transportation bill completed before the next presidential campaign cycle begins and politicians shy away from potentially controversial decisions, Mica told the pro-freight audience.
He said any bill must do more to maximize existing revenues by utilizing financing methods such as bonds and public-private partnerships. Oberstar was skeptical of state deals to lease public highways to private consortiums that turn them into toll roads. In his transportation bill he proposed the creation of an Office of Public Benefit to oversee financial arrangements between states and private companies, as well as state plans to increase tolls on federally funded highways.
Mica also mocked a Democratic proposal to provide $25 billion over five years for a national infrastructure bank that would underwrite risk to attract private capital and make loans for infrastructure projects.
That 'is peanut-brain thinking' given the magnitude of the problem, he said. Three transit projects in New York City alone could suck up all the money, he said.
'I need a robust infrastructure bank that will build our ports, that will build our infrastructure,' Mica said, suggesting something on the order of $250 billion as a more appropriate figure.
He has proposed a fast-track process for getting infrastructure projects completed more quickly modeled on streamlined regulatory approval process that allowed the Interstate 35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007 to be rebuilt in 437 days instead of seven or eight years under a normal permitting and construction schedule. During that period, he noted, the political situation, funding sources and decision-makers can change, causing further delays.
Reviews should be done concurrently rather than consecutively to speed the process up without skirting environmental mandates, he said. ' Eric Kulisch