Not Your Father's Transport Plan

Not Your Father's Transport Plan

Don’t expect the next long-term transportation legislation from Congress to look much like the highway bills of old. This one could be shaping up as the broadest overhaul of transportation programs in decades.

The Obama administration already has offered an outline that would create a Transportation Trust Fund that absorbs highway fuel taxes and determines how they are spent, folds in its dream of a major passenger rail system expansion, and disburses grants and loans to a range of port, intermodal rail and other projects deemed to have special merit.

Now, a key House chairman also is signaling a broader vision, and serving notice he will pack important reforms of maritime and rail aid programs into his committee’s version.

John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a column to the Politico newspaper his panel would not simply reauthorize the usual highway and transit programs. He said it plans to “produce comprehensive legislation” that would “also make significant reforms in our rail and maritime transportation policies.”

The ambitions in Congress and the White House add up to potentially dramatic changes in a broad landscape of transportation, stretching beyond the usual highway spending programs the bill features — it’s generally called the highway bill, after all — to embrace a broad overhaul of freight and passenger transport. Some of the programs seemingly are as entrenched in Washington as federal agency headquarters, but the White House and Mica are looking directly at the ways they are funded and executed.

Mica previously said he would see if his committee might scour existing programs in the rail and marine sectors to unleash money that the government has bottled up. But now he has scrutinized staff-drafted parts of the legislation, and huddled with other members of Congress, to see what can actually make the cut.

He singled out the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which has long been a target for a coastal waterways industry struggling to get enough money out of Washington to cover expensive channel dredging projects.

Ports and other waterway interests say the government, regardless of which party controls the White House, has routinely spent much less on dredging and other projects than the Harbor Maintenance Tax takes in from fees on imports and domestic cargo shipments that use coastal waterways.

Each year that leaves an unspent balance of several hundred million dollars, which has grown over time into a cumulative balance of some $5 billion. Not spending it allows the government, in effect, to count that money against the budget deficit or spend it in other areas.

Mica wants to stop that practice, and sees a chance to inject a lot of money into waterway and harbor improvements without raising taxes.

“This transportation fund, supported by cargo fees, is critical for dredging and harbor channel improvements,” he wrote. “But despite growing maritime infrastructure needs, these funds are not being used for their intended purpose of maintaining our ports. This important fund must not remain caught up in the budgetary gimmicks of Washington.”

Although the T&I bill is just one of several versions that Senate and House panels will unveil in coming weeks, it will be the one representing Republicans since Senate committees are under Democratic control.

Mica also said the government can spend smarter, and find more money for transportation if it unlocks some accounts or extracts more value from others. Last fall, a report by GOP committee members charged the government with “sitting on our assets.”

It’s also standard Republican policy to make sure transportation accounts such as the Highway Trust Fund don’t spend above their user fee receipts and then need bailouts from general taxes. But Mica’s remarks suggest the T&I bill will require the administration to spend down the cumulative balance in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and generate smaller annual surpluses.

That could produce an immediate injection into targeted transportation infrastructure of the $5 billion balance, plus assure higher annual spending levels on harbor maintenance.

Mica also repeated in the column what has become a mantra for him — that Congress needs to stiffen the law governing a big rail loan account called the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program. The RRIF account is authorized to lend up to $35 billion at low federal borrowing rates for a term up to 35 years; instead, it has lent only about $1 billion and after repayments has about half that amount outstanding.

In that same transportation-focused issue of Politico, a Democratic T&I member argued a real boost in transportation infrastructure investment will require new revenue sources as well. “We need to diversify the revenue streams that support our nation’s transportation infrastructure, beyond the current dependence mainly on per-gallon fees from the 1990s on gasoline and diesel fuels for highway use,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.

“We will need some combination of increasing the gas tax, making that tax inflation-sensitive — such as by indexing it to the cost of construction or some other indicator — and securing other revenue sources,” Nadler wrote.

Still, until an actual bill moves through Congress, many in Washington believe the ambitions add up to little. And so far, it looks like partisan rancor may scuttle even strongly supported programs.

Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.