John Mica has a plan for surface transportation. The Florida Republican and chairman of the influential House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has a proposal that relies on innovative financing to leverage scarce government resources: Do more with less.
As conceived, the vision — don’t call it a bill, because Mica doesn’t have that yet — would decimate federal bureaucracy, slashing red tape to move infrastructure projects to completion twice as fast as now. And it would give states more flexibility in the way they spend their share of federal revenue.
When he introduced “A New Direction” on July 7, Mica made a vague promise the formal bill would come out in the near future. According to one expert, the New Direction is a “proposal with bullets, but no details.”
Congress has extended existing highway legislation seven times since the law expired in 2009. The latest extension expires Sept. 30, leaving no time to waste for House and Senate committees to hammer out a much-needed surface transportation spending plan.
Mica’s proposal is a new battle in the partisan war that will only get bigger as 2012 approaches. The Florida Republican is toeing the line with House rules that majority Republicans passed in January: no transportation spending above revenue available in the Highway Trust Fund. The question is, how many Republicans are willing to buy into the limitation?
Mortimer L. Downey, chairman of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, said Mica recognizes the need to start moving a bill. The Senate is preparing its own bill, a two-year measure that would spend down the trust fund, and still needs another $12 billion. Mica said two years wasn’t acceptable.
“Chairman Mica has pushed the envelope as far as it can be pushed within the rules,” Downey said. The House leadership is wary of the Tea Party Republicans who can “outpunch their weight.” They hold fewer than 100 seats, but supporting them are Republicans who fear they could face a Tea Party candidate in next year’s elections.
“Clearly, there’s not an agreement on when to introduce the bill, and whether and how it will move,” said Peter A. Peyser, a principal in the lobbying firm of Blank Rome Government Relations. “The Republican leadership has yet to get the pulse of the Republican caucus to determine how this bill would do. I’m sure there are members of the Republican caucus who are not that comfortable with voting for 30 percent cuts from highway and transit funding.”
Democrats are bitterly opposed. They complain the highway bill once was a model of bipartisan cooperation, but Republicans have shattered the committee’s unity of purpose. The nation needs to spend more on infrastructure if America wants to compete in the world market. Republicans, they said, are focused on the budget deficit when they should be looking at the infrastructure deficit.
Mica’s proposal calls for a six-year, $210 billion program, 30 percent less than the last Bush administration highway bill. Although the funding doesn’t pass muster, infrastructure advocates are pleased with other parts of the bill. Mica says all agencies requiring permits for a project should work in parallel.
Under current practice, project proposals daisy chain from one federal office to the next. It can take 15 years to complete a project. Under Mica’s plan, projects would take six years start to finish.
With innovative thinking, Mica said, the $35 billion in Highway Trust Fund revenue could be leveraged to $75 billion for surface transportation. A big part of Mica’s plan hinges on a huge boost to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, program. Mica wants to pump $1 billion a year into TIFIA, more than eight times the amount Congress authorized in the last transportation bill.
That $1 billion in TIFIA dollars could yield $20 billion in project money. That’s a plus to the transportation advocates, but they warn it’s not a cure for all ills.
“TIFIA means there needs to be a revenue stream. When you’re talking about TIFIA, you need to be talking about tolling or revenue generation on some fee basis,” said Pete Rahn, senior vice president for construction engineering firm HTNB and a former director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
“As I recall,” he said, under the Bush administration, TIFIA loans apply to about 7 percent of the system. That solves one problem, but what about the other 93 percent?”
“The thing that worries me is that we can come up with ways to sweeten the pot and get some useful projects built,” Downey said. “How do we maintain the performance of the system we have? That’s where most of the federal money goes. Mica’s argument is that we’re going to prioritize. To the extent we have money, we’re going to focus it on the interstate system. It’s going to need an enormous amount of work, enormously more than we have been doing.”
Mica’s plan is to focus on the National Highway System, a specific network of interstate, federal and state highways. Downey asked what that leaves for state secondary roads and bridges? “We’re going to focus on the 160,000 miles where most of the federal money will be spent,” Downey said. “That means 2,840,000 miles of our national system is somebody else’s responsibility. We’ve got to be focused on the whole system.”
Rahn said budget-starved states already are carrying out maintenance-only programs. There isn’t enough money to build to meet future demand, and the population continues to grow.
“The longer you let your system degrade, the more it’s going to cost to address the problem,” Rahn said. “This country is going to pay a horrible price for the underinvestment that we’ve been making over the last several years, and now we’re going to make it worse.”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.