House Republicans rolled out parts of a $260 billion transportation infrastructure bill Tuesday, casting the legislation as a major vehicle for job creation and energy production.
The five-year bill reauthorizes highway, transit and safety programs but also eliminates or consolidates dozens of existing federal functions. Supporters said its designed to streamline federally-funded projects, cut bureaucratic red tape and give states more flexibility to spend money on projects they prioritize.
Congress hasn't approved a "permanent" transportation bill since 2005, and if this one succeeds it will be the first successful bid following eight temporary extensions. But while groups representing the construction industry, trucking and other interests are supportive, Republicans and Democrats are bound to clash in an environment where parties have been more interested in showing their differences than their ability to compromise.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week he gave the bill little chance of passage.
Republicans are calling their bill the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, and House GOP leaders are targeting it for floor action later in February. But there are some big hurdles standing between the bill and President Obama's desk. More on that in an minute. First, here are some of the key provisions:
-A $260 billion, 5-year bill that feeds the Highway Trust Fund at $35 billion per year via the federal gas tax. Republicans intend to make up a sizable funding shortfall with revenue from expanded domestic energy production, including natural gas, offshore drilling, shale and other projects. Republicans stressed that the bill contains no earmarks, which is notable considering that the transportation authorization bill is a traditional home for thousands of them.
-Consolidation or elimination of some 70 federal highway and transit programs
-Elimination of transportation "enhancements" that require states to spend up to 10% of their federal highway money on non-highway projects like bike paths or beautification projects. "We're going to get the maximum amount of money in our real infrastructure and hopefully people will see the difference," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fl., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
-No federal Infrastructure Bank. Instead the bill expands from 10% to 15% the amount of federal highway dollars states can put into their own infrastructure banks, if they've got them.
-Expedited environmental review for many federal projects. Mica stressed that Republicans aren't "running over" environmental protection rules, but that times for those reviews should be shortened. The bill also shrinks some consecutive environmental assessments into concurrent ones.
-$1 billion in expanded funding for state and local transpo loans under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). It's a popular program, and that one has bipartisan support.
-Cuts AMTRAK funding by 25% in 2012 and 2013.
-Has no provisions for high speed rail except for what Mica described as "placeholders"
-Increases the allowable weight for trucks to 126,000 lbs, another provision that has the rail industry hopping mad.
-New incentives for states to require that convicted drunk drivers must use breathalyzer locks to start their cars. Beverage and Restaurant groups are up in arms over the provision and are vowing a fight. "We're going to work with everybody. The bill isn't final," said Mica, acknowledging the controversy.
And final it is not. Mica's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is set to mark up the bill in a marathon session Thursday. So long, in fact, that the chairman urged reporters to bring "hemorrhoid cream" to the session. But that's only part of the work that needs to be done. GOP leaders intend to use expanded energy revenue to help pay for the bill's big funding gap. That means that other committee's, including the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee have to get involved to authorize new projects and raise money.
After that's all done the bill goes head-to-head with a smaller, two-year Senate bill with significantly fewer reforms but higher spending for the Highway Trust Fund.
And here's a twist to watch: Over the weekend House Speaker John Boehner suggested Republicans may use the bill as a vehicle to try and force President Obama to approve the controversial Keyston XL oil sands pipeline. That's assuming the pipeline isn't passed as part of a deal to extend payroll tax breaks and unemployment benefits through the end of the year.
Mica, who is fond of stressing the commonalities he and Senate Democrats have over transportation issues, laughed when asked if inclusion of Keystone XL might upset the chances for an election-year compromise.
"What are you, some kind of troublemaker," he said.
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