John Mica chose an outdoor location on the sun-splashed U.S. Capitol grounds on an unusually mild January day to unveil his version of a long-awaited, long-term transportation spending bill. “What a beautiful day not only in Washington, but for the United States of America, and for transportation,” he said.
The Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had reason to be upbeat. He had, after all, just guided the drafting of the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, a five-year, $260 billion bill he said would create jobs and reduce the country’s dependence on foreign sources of oil, while shrinking the federal transportation bureaucracy and giving states more latitude to spend tax dollars on their own set of priorities.
He called it a commitment to states, which would get a reliable source of money to carry out long-term infrastructure projects, something they haven’t had since the last multiyear law expired in 2009. The Highway Trust Fund would provide $35 billion to $40 billion a year, with the balance likely coming from revenue from new oil and gas exploration.
The bill is expected to hit the House floor for a vote this month, but, even if passed, faces a bumpy road because it must be reconciled with a two-year, $109 billion Senate transportation plan that faces a $12 billion funding gap.
Still, most transportation interest groups, which have been waiting years to go beyond talk, commended Mica for crafting a bill at all.
For others, the prospects aren’t so sunny. States may have fewer restrictions on the way they spend federal tax money, but the price is the loss of federal programs aimed at improving freight movement, said Mortimer L. Downey III, senior adviser to construction giant Parsons Brinckerhof.
“There is no longer any discretionary money,” he said. “Every penny is formula-only. You’re taking national policymaking off the table — no more corridors of national significance, no TIGER grants, no more border crossing programs, no more of anything.”
Under the bill, Downey said, states are encouraged to create freight advisory committees and develop a freight plan. “It’s strictly encouragement — no money, and no federal program that you could look to,” he said.
Such a tight-fisted approach to government spending is what the American public wants, said Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance. People are fed up because they’ve seen few tangible benefits for the tax dollars they’ve paid.
Missing from the bill are the earmarks that increasingly larded up transportation legislation over recent years. The new bill would eliminate or consolidate some 70 programs that benefited small groups. It’s a sign of the reform Americans want to see, Cohen said. “Most of the postings we get on our social network of highway users come from outside the Beltway. There’s a huge gap in trust between what people in Washington think needs to be done, and the belief that people have that the federal government won’t do it,” he said
The bill would streamline the paperwork process “so it doesn’t take years to get approval on these projects,” Mica said. Of the $63 billion for transportation infrastructure in the 2010 stimulus bill, 35 percent was still being held in Washington. “That’s not going to happen again. Shovel-ready cannot become a joke. We want to see transportation projects now, not in some far distant time,” he said.
Ports, Great Lakes and inland waterways interests have long complained Harbor Maintenance Tax revenue isn’t being spent for dredging harbors and channels, but instead sits to count as deficit reduction. That would change under the bill, which requires revenue collected in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be used for dredging.
The bill also encourages private investment in infrastructure, and provides incentives and funds to bolster state infrastructure banks, but there will be no national infrastructure bank. The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which provides loans and loan guarantees for projects, would get $1 billion, four times what it gets today.
The bill would authorize states to allow 97,000-pound trucks and longer combination vehicles, reviving a 20-year-old feud between railroads and motor carriers. “Truck size and weight is definitely going to be a fight,” Downey said. “This was a big issue in the 1987 bill. Since then, there has been an armed truce.”
Railroad and trucking groups fought a prolonged and public battle over the issue, but little changed in the end.
House Republicans, Cohen said, are taking a calculated risk they can pass a bill without the overwhelming bipartisan approval transportation bills have had in the past. “They’re looking for a simple majority, not the usual 90 percent support that it’s had in the past,” he said. “This is definitely a new approach, and not every group in town is going to support it.
“I think the goal is to restore trust. The way the House feels the way to do it is to bring the highway bill back to its original purpose,” Cohen said. “The bill really attempts to reform, consolidate and streamline programs, so the American people will trust that this is a program worth paying for.”