“The focus of the bill is on the national highway system” – Streetsblog USA
First, to recap:
The transportation reauthorization proposal that House of Commons Transport Committee Chairman John Mica unveiled yesterday (without legislation) provides for $ 230 billion over six years, cutting current spending levels by 33%. The plan maintains the current 80/20 split between highways and public transport funding, supports state infrastructure banks instead of a national bank, and expands the popular and oversubscribed TIFIA loan program.
Why a six-year bill
At yesterday’s press conference to roll out the bill, Mica and other House members explained their commitment to a six-year bill, unlike the Senate’s proposal for a bill. two years.
“We want a long term bill,” Mica said. “We have heard across the country that our Secretaries of State for Transport want some stability.”
Richard Hanna, vice-chair of the highways and transit subcommittee, argued that the stimulus failed to significantly boost employment because short-term ‘off the shelf’ projects don’t create not a lot of jobs.
“By passing a six-year transportation bill, this committee will provide states and transportation agencies with an established federal funding stream that will enable them to undertake major projects,” Hanna said. “Given this predictability, states will be more comfortable replacing bridges, improving road interchanges, and so on. These are projects that provide jobs for two or three years, not two or three months.
Without the assurance of a long-term bill, Hanna said, “states will continue to postpone major construction projects.”
“The two-year plan is a recipe for the bankruptcy of the trust fund and also a shutdown of long-term projects across the country,” Mica said. “And if you don’t believe it, look what happened. We are currently under a two-year extension, which expires in September. It will be two years. And see what it gives us! Not a lot.”
Even supporters of a short bill agree that a longer bill is ideal because it allows for planning, but they say transport agencies also can’t plan large projects with the tiny net of federal funding that the House bill would allow to flow to the states. Some DOT heads of state say they would rather have adequate funding for two years rather than meager funding for six years.
Funding rules and constraints
Mica made it clear that while he was also disappointed that funding levels were so low, he was hampered by the political climate of fiscal conservatism in the House and, more specifically, by House Rule XXI, which includes a “Pay-as-you-go” provision [PDF] which Mica sees as a ban on spending more than the Highway Trust Fund receives.
“I wish I could jump over the moon,” Mica said, “but I can’t do that either. “
He has said on several occasions that he and other members of the committee will appear before the Ways and Means Committee, which makes decisions on how to fund programs, to ask for help. He was not very specific on what they would ask for, although he did mention some tax credits and bonds for private companies investing in infrastructure. He would not say he would push for any increase in user fees, whether it be a gas tax hike or a VMT royalty.
“We’ve tried to look at every dollar of revenue that comes in and how we can maximize it,” Mica said, explaining that by consolidating programs, encouraging private investment and streamlining the review process, he thinks that they can “do more with less.”
They remove 70 programs from the “bewildering” list of federal transportation programs and “delegate the ability to approve” the programs to the states. Federal mandates for certain programs (including bicycle, pedestrian, and other livability programs) will be eliminated, but states will retain the “flexibility” to spend money on these things. Unfortunately, if history is to be trusted, many states end up under-spending these alternative transportation programs, even disproportionately sending money for bikes / pedalos back to Washington when called upon to cancel. funds from their budgets.
Mica said there would be more money available (despite the smaller invoice size) for all of these programs, as it reduces federal overhead costs and eliminates the need for state and local authorities to “travel to Washington to talk to a bureaucrat all at once. ” agencies.
Focus on highways
“The bill focuses on the national road network,” Mica said, in response to a question about eliminating funding for pedestrian potential. “We cannot fund all local projects.
“We’re trying to make sure our federal responsibility comes first, and that’s our highways and our major infrastructure projects.”
He then took the opportunity to brag that Bill had no trust, reducing the amount spent on frivolous “pet” projects and that there were no “reservations. specials ”- a Republican code for things like multi-use trails.
The bill does not have dollar amounts attached to specific programs, but Representative Bill Shuster said there was nothing specific for the bullet train. Still, he promised the plan would improve the bullet train program, which he accused the Obama administration of “mismanagement.”
“We’re going to fix it in this bill,” said Shuster, “requiring that projects be really high speed – and the definition of high speed won’t be 110 mph; it will be 125 mph. He also promised greater transparency.
They reduce Amtrak’s funding by 25% and limit the use of the funding. For example, said Shuster, it could not be “wasted” in lawsuits like the one Amtrak is currently involved in.
The plan also includes improvements to the Railway Rehabilitation and Improvement Funding Program, which is funded at $ 35 billion but has only managed to spend about $ 1 billion over the past 13 years. years.
No competition but private competition for public transport
Mica is a Republican who has long been a fan of rail and public transport. At yesterday’s event, he said: “When you see the cost of a car on the road and the construction of new highways through metropolitan areas or even rural areas, you become an advocate for alternatives. transport. “
Yet that support has not translated into transit breaks in this bill. Even if transit’s share of the pie remains the same, the reduced overall funding levels would mean a reduction of about $ 11 billion for transit today to about $ 7 billion.
On the plus side, the proposal would “streamline” the New and Small Departures program for public transit, “cutting project development time in half,” according to the plan. In fact, project development times are set, within the framework of this plan, from 15 to 6 years by ensuring that federal reviews take place at the same time, instead of each waiting for the end of another.
But overall, there is a lot of bad news for transit in this bill. The public transport section also encourages private companies to provide public transport services. House Republicans like what they see in the success of private intercity buses and want to see vans compete with city buses in urban areas, in addition to more private involvement in rail transportation. Some critics of private participation at this level fear that private operators will take control of lucrative routes, leaving slower routes to public agencies (and losing money).
The plan would also repeal discretionary transit programs that Republicans deem “unpredictable and non-transparent,” reverting instead to a strict funding formula. This move goes against repeated and growing demands for increased performance measures, which would often use discretionary funds as a “carrot” to encourage profitable programs that meet national transportation goals.
Indeed, the House bill stands out for its rejection of performance measures and competitive programs like TIGER and the Sustainable Communities Grants instituted by the Obama administration. Committee member Jim Tymon had to answer Streetsblog’s question about performance metrics when Mica couldn’t answer it, but Tymon’s answer was vague.
He said performance measures would be developed in collaboration with USDOT and state DOTs. He said that while states will be given increased flexibility in how they spend their money, they will be held accountable for how they meet performance standards. If they don’t meet those standards, he said, they will be forced to spend money in the areas where they are underperforming.
An unlikely ally
As responses continue to pour in from advocacy groups and lawmakers alarmed by the funding cuts, several notable people have called Mica’s press event to thank him for the new proposal. One of them was LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a champion of transit investment. He thanked Mica for “listening to the 113 mayors who have supported TIFIA’s expansion”.
“Your proposal to increase TIFIA’s budget authority to $ 1 billion goes beyond even what many of us talked about at the start,” Villaraigosa said, “and we think that’s exactly it. where it needs to be. “
It’s a useful high-level endorsement for Mica from a pro-transit Democrat. Still, the mayor is unlikely to support Mica’s plan over Boxer’s, which also includes America Fast Forward, another Villaraigosa-backed plan to increase federal mobilization of private funds.