WASHINGTON – The nation's crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems are at the point of hindering U.S. economic growth, but Congress is struggling to come up with a solution.
The problems are numerous.
One of the big problems: Americans have been driving less for several years due to a slow economy, reducing revenue from the gas tax, the normal way to pay for transportation improvements. Lawmakers have no easy solutions on how to find the money to maintain the current transportation network, much less begin to address a staggering backlog of projects.
A sweeping House Republican plan to transform federal transportation programs was quickly attacked this week from the left as a giveaway to greedy, well-heeled industries and from the right as an example of big government overspending.
And a House transportation committee meeting Thursday to approve the $260 billion, 4½ -year bill was marked by bitter partisanship and occasional shouting. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the committee's chairman, said he felt like "a referee in a big food fight."
The nation hasn't had a long-term transportation policy in place since the last legislation expired in 2009. Congress has kept programs going through short-term extensions, the most recent of which expires March 31, and some lawmakers say they won't go along with another Band-Aid fix. That could set the stage for a partisan standoff like the one that caused a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration last summer and forced the temporary layoff of tens of thousands workers in construction-related jobs.
Adding to the pressure: The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highway and transit programs, is going broke. A new Congressional Budget Office forecast estimates the government will have to delay payments to states beginning sometime in the 2013 federal budget year, which could force some projects to shut down.
Democrats said Republicans, who control the House, denied them input into the bill and are trying to flatline transportation spending when more money is needed.
"It signals a retreat from creating greater transportation opportunities," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the panel's senior Democrat.
Mica defended the bill as "the most dramatic overhaul and reform to (transportation) programs since the beginning of the interstate system" five decades ago. Among other things, the bill would consolidate more than 100 programs into about 30, and take away much of the federal government's leverage over how states spend highway and transit aid.
Those are long-sought conservative goals, but it's not enough for the Club for Growth, a free-market, anti-tax group influential with tea-party Republicans. In an email this week, the club alerted House members that it opposes the bill because it spends too much money and vowed to include the bill as a key vote in its congressional scorecard.
With the bill likely to get few if any Democratic votes, Republican leaders can't afford to lose very many GOP votes on the right if they hope to pass it.
Republicans have said they plan to fully pay for the $50 billion-plus gap between trust fund revenues and spending over the life of their bill, but they've been unclear where that money will come from. They've proposed using revenue from opening oil and gas drilling along the East and West Coasts, portions of the gulf coast of Florida and portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Democrats, citing CBO estimates of previous drilling proposals, say that will at best produce $5 billion over 10 years. Republicans dispute that, but haven't offered their own estimate. And even if driving picks up along with the economy, it's unlikely to solve the funding crisis because cars are getting better gas mileage.
A companion measure to pay for the transportation bill was posted online by Republicans on Thursday, but it wasn't specific about where the money will come from, either.
One draft GOP financing plan would eliminate an agreement in place since the Reagan administration that apportions gas-tax revenues between highway and transit programs. Currently, 2.86 cents of the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax goes to transit programs such as buses, subways and commuter rail lines. Eliminating that dedicated source of funds and replacing it with a one-time transfer of funds, as the GOP plan proposes, would leave transit programs vulnerable in future budget fights as Congress looks to reduce overall spending.
The transit proposal, along with the changes in the way transportation projects must comply with environmental regulations and other provisions in the bill, elicited howls from environmentalists. The Natural Resources Defense Council labeled the measure "the worst transportation bill ever."
Labor unions are unhappy with several provisions, as well. Transportation bills have "never been a grab bag for ideological attack, but unfortunately that's what it has become," said Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department.
The bill does have the support of a wide range of transportation-related industries and industries that are dependent on shipping their goods by road. At a news conference earlier this week to unveil the bill, Mica gave shout outs to industry lobbyists who worked with Republicans as they drafted the bill, including the American Trucking Associations and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
A provision sought by the trucking industry and shippers that would have allowed triple-trailer trucks weighing as much as 126,000 pounds on federal highways was eliminated from the bill during Thursday's meeting. Safety advocates said they were going to ask the White House to issue a veto threat if the provision were retained.
Lawmakers could go a long way toward solving their money problem by increasing gas taxes, but neither party has the will for that during an election year when many voters are still suffering from a sour economy.
In the Senate, lawmakers have crafted a bipartisan, two-year bill that spends $109 billion. But senators have also repeatedly delayed disclosing how they plan to make up a $12 billion shortfall under their plan.
Mica defended his bill as take a large step toward many changes conservatives have sought. The Senate bill, he said in an interview, is a "disaster" because it only lasts two years and leaves the highway program broke at the end of that time.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., co-author of the Senate bill, said she was disappointed Mica didn't "reach out to Democrats" when writing his bill, but she remains hopeful that Congress can pass a final bill before the end of March.
"Although there are some real red flags over there, they've also done some good things as well," she said.
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