Backers of two competing transportation plans are jockeying for support by selling their initiatives as job creators and taking shots at the other side for funding shortfalls.
The rhetoric is expected to intensify as supporters of the Senate and House bills pump their plans before a yet-to-be-scheduled congressional conference committee. But both camps have plenty of numbers to crunch before meeting with each other to forge a compromise.
Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., need to find $12 billion more than the Highway Trust Fund will provide for their two-year, $109 billion plan. And Rep. John Mica and other House Republicans are hunting for more than $55 billion to augment their six-year, $286 billion plan.
It’s a question not only of where to find the money but also how much to devote to transportation and infrastructure spending. That battle, which has been largely in the shadows over the past two years without real spending measures on the table, is finally bursting onto the political scene.
“A six-year surface transportation bill funded at $286 billion would, in fact, represent a 16 percent cut compared to the $339 billion, which would put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk immediately,” Boxer wrote in an Oct. 26 letter to Mica, R-Fla., and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said her plan is indexed for inflation. But Mica has jabbed repeatedly at Boxer’s plan by noting it falls short by some $12 billion of the level needed to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent.
For the transportation interests that have been thrashing out and detailing the country’s enormous needs, the truth, however, is that the Senate and House versions represent debates over how much to scale back one’s expectations. They are battles over how small to take the country’s vision.
Mica’s plan carries the same dollar figure that most experts termed inadequate when the last highway bill passed in 2005. Boxer’s bill would replace the six-year vision of previous bills with a two-year holding pattern, presumably in hopes of a better funding climate down the road.
Boxer’s letter came a day after Mica said his plan would be “the core of not just the Republican but the congressional jobs effort.” Mica’s statement signals he wants to push the long-delayed surface reauthorization plan instead of focusing on a separate, broader White House jobs bill that may come with highway spending attached.
“This could put people to work long term and build the country’s infrastructure,” Mica said. “We can have a positive outcome and put people to work.”
Mica’s pitch came roughly two weeks before the Senate panel is scheduled to begin marking up the two-year plan. Senators also are expected to vote on the highway spending elements of Obama’s jobs plan in early November.
Few details of the competing plans are known, and neither side has identified how they will plug each of their respective plans’ shortfalls. After getting the go-ahead from Republicans to look for alternative revenue sources, a major policy shift, Mica has mentioned several ways to prop up the Highway Trust Fund.
They have ranged from tapping oil drilling income to replacing the gas tax with a new revenue system. Revenue propping possibilities for the Senate plan are expected to become more apparent through the markup.
Both plans call for the shortening of highway project approval by having agencies handle permitting concurrently instead of consecutively, said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Neither plan will create the number of jobs the transportation industry needs, nor do they go far enough in fixing the ailing U.S. infrastructure, said Matt Jeanneret, a spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
He said contractors are “very pessimistic” about next year, considering federal stimulus spending has almost dried up and details on both transportation plans are scarce.
“There has been progress, though, in that they are talking about maintaining current levels and have stemmed the call for massive cuts in the House,” Jeanneret said.
It’s a sign of the times that standing still now counts as progress.