Congressional gridlock on highway programs loosens

Friday, July 1, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 26

WASHINGTON (AP) — The congressional gridlock that has tied up federal highway programs for years loosened up a bit Wednesday as key House and Senate lawmakers outlined separate proposals to fund repairs and construction of roads, bridges and transit systems.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters he plans to introduce a $230 billion, six-year highway, transit, rail and maritime construction bill. A draft of the bill was being circulated among GOP members of the committee.

In the Senate, a committee chairwoman, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, said she is pursuing a two-year, $109 billion bill focused on highway and transit programs.

"It's more (action) than we've seen in a long time. The question is whether this is real movement or just motion," said Mort Downey, a Transportation Department official during the Clinton administration who has advised President Barack Obama on infrastructure spending.

There are striking differences between the two bills. The Senate bill spends significantly more per year, including $6 billion a year for which no revenue source has yet been decided. The House bill is paid for entirely through current gasoline, diesel and other taxes that provide revenue for the federal Highway Trust Fund. But it represents about a 30 percent spending cut over the previous long-term highway spending bill, which expired in 2009.

Transportation construction programs have limped along under eight temporary funding extensions since then. Two blue-ribbon commissions studying transportation have warned that if the U.S. doesn't sharply increase spending to repair and improve its infrastructure, the nation will face a future of nightmarish congestion. Current transportation systems — highway, rail and aviation — won't be able to handle the projected population growth of 100 million more Americans by 2050.

Current highway program authority expires Sept. 30.

Despite their differences, there are significant issues on which Mica and Boxer agree. Both want to use federal loan guarantees to increase private investment in transportation projects. For her part, Boxer said she'd rather do a six-year bill doesn't believe it can pass the Senate. Mica indicated he'd like to spend more per year on transportation programs but that spending increases can't win approval in the current climate of fiscal austerity in the House.

"The most important thing is to move the process forward," Mica said. "I have to deal with the cards that are dealt me."