House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., rolled out a six-year, $230 billion surface-transportation bill last week, and the reviews were, well, negative to mixed. Republicans on the committee said the bill, which would cut current transportation money by about 35 percent, maximizes the value of available funding and provides stability for states that have been living from stopgap to stopgap for the past two years. The measure would dedicate $6 billion to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program, which, in theory, would finance $120 billion in projects. It also would consolidate or eliminate some 70 projects considered duplicative and limit Highway Trust Fund money to just highway spending. In the familiar Republican slant away from federal government, the measure would distribute more than 90 percent of federal highway program funds to states, "allowing state and local transportation officials to prioritize projects."
Democrats hated it. "Based on the funding levels alone, it appears that this bill can best be called the 'Republican Road to Ruin,' " said Transportation ranking member Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Other Democrats got a few scattered Republicans to join in asking for the Republican sponsors to put forth a "robust" bill instead of the meager measure. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said the funding is "disastrously stingy," and Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, said lawmakers can't keep putting the transportation bill "on the back burner."
Outside lobbying interests were more careful. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials expressed "concerns" about the funding levels, but they also reminded everyone that this is the beginning of the process and it's important to get the ball rolling. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce commended Mica for tracking its recommendations in the substance of the bill, but said the funding level is unacceptable. The Laborers' International Union of North America simply said GOP leaders gave up on America.
So where are we? The Republican highway proposal shouldn't be a surprise, given the severe budget constraints that GOP leaders have handed the committee. It also won't pass as written. What in Mica's proposal is salvageable? What is helpful? Does the grand unveiling of the bill actually get the ball rolling and people talking such that lawmakers can agree on a workable number? Is it possible to fund any transportation priorities with $230 billion?