With the clock ticking down on the eighth extension of a federal transportation bill, the House has finally weighed in with a five-year, $260 billion spending plan.
Markup has already begun on the new American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act (H.R. 7), unveiled Jan. 31 by the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
|House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) unveils his 847-page, $260 billion, five-year surface transportation bill.|
Sponsors said the federal highway, transit and safety package would create jobs and reduce dependence on imported energy.
If approved, the measure would be the first long-term highway and transit authorization bill passed by Congress since the $244.1 billion so-called SAFETEA-LU package of 2005.
That measure has been extended eight times since Sept. 30, 2009, and is set to expire March 31.
The Senate released its version of a surface transportation bill in November.
‘Cuts the Red Tape’
“The American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act is the largest transportation reform bill since the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956,” committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) said in a statement.
“This is a five-year bill that reforms our federal transportation programs, cuts the red tape and bureaucracy that delays projects across the country, gives states more flexibility to determine their most critical infrastructure needs, provides states with the long-term stability to undertake major improvements, and encourages private sector participation in helping to finance transportation projects.”
As originally proposed, the 847-page bill:
• Contains no earmarks;
• Calls on the Secretary of Transportation to develop a five-year National Freight Policy and state freight advisory committees;
• Consolidates or eliminates nearly 70 federal programs;
• Eliminates mandates that states spend highway funds on non-highway activities;
• Requires that the Harbor Maintenance Tax be used for its original purposes of program consolidation and streamlining project delivery;
• Ties infrastructure spending to expanded oil drilling;
• Cuts Amtrak funding by 25%;
• Allows federal and state environmental approvals to run concurrently instead of consecutively;
• Allows states to set their own transportation priorities; and
• Encourages states to partner with the private sector to finance and build projects.
Sponsors did not say where the money for the bill would come from.
The bill was already being reshaped as the House committee began marking it up Thursday and Friday.
Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, pushed unsuccessfully to delay the work for a week, asking: “How many members of this committee have read this bill? All 840 pages of it?”
|The eighth extension of the current surface transportation bill will expire March 31.|
He added: “I hope all members of this committee had a full breakfast this morning, because I wouldn’t want them to starve like we’ve been starving our infrastructure.”
Some tentative changes were made early:
• The committee approved an amendment by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) to bar any of the money from going to a high-speed railway in California. “Highway bill money should be used on highways,” said Denham.
• The committee rejected a short-lived plan to allow heavier trucks on all U.S. highways and ordered a new study of the issue.
The original bill had sought to grant all states authority to raise truck-weight limits for interstate travel from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds. Dozens of travel, safety and consumer associations had protested the provision.
House Speaker John Boehner has also threatened to add a “poison pill” rider to the bill, to try to force President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama recently rejected.
“If [Keystone] is not enacted before we take up the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, it will be part of it,” Boehner said on ABC’s This Week news program.
Whatever the bill’s final form in the House, plenty of work will remain to reconcile it with the Senate’s “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21),” a 599-page spending plan introduced in November.
The two-year, $109 billion Senate bill maintains current funding levels, contains no earmarks, and vows to reform current transportation programs to make them more efficient.
‘Very Significant Change’
Reaction to the bill was predictably mixed.
The chairman of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC) called the bill a “very significant change in how transportation programs are structured.”
The group, which focuses on national freight policy, is composed of state DOTs, MPOs, ports, engineering firms, and freight corridors.
“Virtually all the money in this bill will go out by formula, particularly on the highway side,” said chairman Mort Downey, a former Secretary of Transportation. “There are no discretionary programs, no earmarks; whereas it is a payday for the states as they will get the money and decide what to do with it.”
He added: “There is also the unanswered question of how the entire bill will be paid for, as it needs about $50 billion in new revenue over the five-year timeframe and we have not seen what that is yet. Some of it will be in the form of oil and gas drilling but that does not come close to filling the gap.”
The American Highway Users Alliance, a nonprofit motorist advocacy group, praised the bill, calling it “full of important reforms” and expressing confidence that a bill could be passed this year.
“The Highway Users is pleased that both bills are moving forward in their respective chambers,” Alliance president Greg Cohen said.
That feeling was echoed by American Subcontractors Association president Kerrick Whisenant, who said:
“ASA urges members of both the House and the Senate to support long-term surface transportation legislation. A long-term authorization with adequate funding will allow the needed maintenance and improvement of our highways and transit systems to move forward.”