(Washington, DC -- Todd Zwillich) House Republicans formally floated an outline of their 6-year transportation bill Thursday, promising to try for large cuts in highway funding and to send more influence over projects to the states.
GOP lawmakers presented the $230 billion bill as a way to fund critical transportation projects in lean economic times. Democrats promptly attacked it as inadequate and said it would not reach President Obama for a signature.
The most glaring top-line from Republicans’ bill is a major curb in federal highways spending. The bill caps spending from the Highway Trust Fund to what it takes in in taxes. That’s projected at right around $35 billion per year over six-year life of the bill. That would comprise a major cut in highway spending, which has been borrowing money from the rest of the government for years to fund new projects and upkeep. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, alone has spent about $63 billion on highway projects since 2009.
“We believe we can do a lot more with less,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) at the committee’s roll-out event on Capitol Hill.
The “more” part, Mica said, comes from streamlining how highway projects go from blueprint to blacktop. The bill pares back environmental review requirements and other clearances for new projects. It also overhauls or eliminates up to 70 programs that now funnel money into highway projects and instead focuses on sending money to states in the form of loans and infrastructure bank installments.
A GOP handout promoting the bill states that the average highway project would get completed in six years under the bill, compared with 15 years now.
All of this together, Mica said, would mean more, not less, money reaching projects.
“I think we can more than double the $35 billion we have in the Trust Fund,” he said.
Still the funding level is way below a $55 billion-per-year, two-year proposal put forward by Senate Democrats Wednesday. That points up a deep divide that many lawmakers think will be impossible to bridge in order to get a final bill. The transportation sector is now operating under Congress’s 8th temporary extension.
Republicans are also proposing to up the direct federal loans under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) to $1 billion and to give more control over the funds to state and local authorities. That’s good news for mayors like Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, who chimed in by phone to offer his support.
Republicans are also gunning for changes in high-speed rail funding, including the very definition of “high-speed”. Trains funded under the bill would have to go at least 125 mph to qualify as high-speed, not the 110 mph used now.
View House Republicans 17-page bill outline here (http://republicans.transportation.house.gov/Media/file/112th/Highways/Reauthorization_document.pdf)
Actual text of the Republicans’ bill could be out in time for a scheduled hearing next Tuesday. But Democrats took little time to trash the GOP proposal.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), called Mica’s bill a “road to ruin.". "It takes our nation in the wrong direction, backwards instead of forwards. Instead of putting America on a pathway to prosperity, this bill provides the necessary funds for transportation to half the country and tells the other half to wait around for the next time," said Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Given the $20 billion-per-year gap between House Republicans’ 6-year bill and Senate Democrats’ 2-year bill, prospects of the GOP proposal surviving in its current form seem dim.
“I don’t think it goes anywhere,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a member of the committee, said in an interview. “I don’t think six years of stability is worth setting bar so low that it’ll take us years to crawl back. I think what’s most likely is we’ll get probably a 2-year extension.