ANALYSIS: On Transportation Spending, Expectations Spiral Downwards

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House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica (Getty Images)

Almost exactly two years ago, Rep John Mica (R-FL) stood at a podium with sharp words for the Obama Administration.  The White House had just put a halt to expectations that it would push for a new, $500 billion, 6-year surface transportation bill.

Instead, the administration recommended an 18-month extension of the previous bill, which Rep. Mica wasn't having. It would mean transportation spending would be about half what almost everyone then wanted -- members of Congress of both parties, the highway lobby, the rail industry, transit advocates.

"We're going to do everything we can to move this bill forward, despite what the administration said yesterday,"  Mica said in June, 2009, calling a $500 billion transportation bill the "most critical jobs bill before Congress in the next year."

And then, with Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), then the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Mica held aloft a shovel to symbolize all the construction jobs that would come with a big transportation bill.

How the worm turns.

Oberstar was voted out in November, 2010, after 36 years on the Committee.  Mica is now the Chair.

In February, as part of its budget proposal, the White House asked for $556 billion for a six year transportation bill.

On Thursday, Mica said absolutely not.

Instead, Mica unveiled his own proposal (though the actual bill is still pending) for a $230 billion, 6-year bill.

"While some continue to advocate the same old tax-and-spend approach, I prefer a new direction,” Mica said, introducing the bill's outline.  “This long-term plan is the only fiscally responsible proposal and will ensure the continued solvency of the Highway Trust Fund," he added.

Now, a bit of explainer for  non-transit wonks.  For decades, transportation has been funded through a gas tax.  In the Clinton era, when Americans were driving giant SUV's, the fund was flush.  But as cars became more fuel-efficient, and then, as the economy was dashed on the rocks in the fall of 2008, driving plunged, and gas tax revenues sank.  A new transportation bill was supposed to be approved in 2009, amid much hand-wringing that the highway-trust fund was "broke."

In those days, a big transportation bill was still a bi-partisan priority.  That buoyed hopes that there could be some new funding mechanism -- a gas tax hike, perhaps.  (The last time the gas tax was raised was 1993.)  Or highway tolls.  Or a tax on the number of miles driven -- a VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax.

But then came the aforementioned 18-month extender.  In the spring of 2009, with the economy still badly teetering, that seemed a whole lot more palatable to the White House than raising a tax.  And the 18-months would put them squarely beyond the 2010 elections. At the time, there was quiet cheering of Obama's political deftness.

Except that the 18-month move meant a six-year bill would now be considered right as Obama's own re-election campaign was getting underway.

But the President still believed he could get it done.

Even after everything that happened in November, the Tea Party ascension, the howls of anguish from economically-strapped voters, the Administration was still bullish on transportation. In his State of the Union, President Obama made connecting most Americans to high-speed rail a signature initiative.  Less than a month later, he announced his support for the $556 transportation bill.

To be sure, the administration never said how that $556 billion would be funded.  Called before Congress several times, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would only say he "looked forward" to working out the financing with Congress.

But then came the discussions over the continuing resolution, where the House Republicans made their antipathy towards any kind of spending perfectly clear.

In this context, on Thursday, stating flatly that Congress would not support a gas tax, Mica proposed a $230 billion 6-year bill, an effective cut, by some estimates, of 30 percent over current spending. The bill drew the immediate derision of Democrats.  "This flawed plan would eliminate thousands of transportation jobs and be a major setback for our country's critical network of roads, bridges, and railways," said Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, who warned nearly 500,000 jobs would be cut as a result.

Now, if this sounds like partisan positioning, remember that transportation bills used to have bi-partisan support.  The bickering was over the details, not the spending levels -- at least not really.

Analysts don't give Mica's bill much chance of passage as is,  and advocates are pinning their hopes on a $109 billion, 2-year bill, expected as early as the week of July 11, from Senator Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA)  That bill would essentially maintain funding at "current" levels (remember the real bill, not the extender, expired in 2009), plus inflation.  It would rely on a small amount of money from the general fund, and finding $12 billion from "closing loopholes," such as oil company tax breaks.

But other than that, there's no talk of new revenues.  There's no discussion of expanding expectations, repairing roads and bridges at an aggressive rate, or expanding transit at the rate of, say, China or even some third-world nations.

And the Democratic Senate bill is a far cry from the $500 billion that both parties once agreed needed to be spent.

That shovel that Mica held aloft?  It's now buried somewhere, deep down in the earth.