Can’t Congress agree on highways, at least?

at 03:04 PM ET, 10/03/2011

To hear Eric Cantor tell it, the president’s jobs bill is dead and rotting in the House — at least in its current form. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s ballyhooed jobs speech last month was totally ineffective. In fact, it already seems to have quietly nudged the dial on at least one key issue, prodding the House GOP to consider a bigger transportation spending bill.


(David McNew/Getty)
Some quick context: Gas-tax revenue, as we know, is shrinking over time: The tax isn’t indexed to inflation, and Americans have cut down on driving during the recession. That means there’s less and less federal money to bankroll new highway and transit projects. (True, Congress could always just raise the gas tax, but, well...) So, earlier this year, House Republicans unveiled a six-year, $230 billion transportation bill that would’ve represented a 30 percent cut in spending from current levels. That’s all we can afford, they said, with current gas-tax levels. Even Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica sounded apologetic about it.

That proposal sits uneasily with interest groups. Unions clasped hands with the Chamber of Commerce and argued that a sharp cut in infrastructure spending didn’t make a whole lot of sense right now. State transportation officials moaned loudly. And Obama’s jobs speech, which included a call for $50 billion in new infrastructure spending, put Republicans on the defensive. The result? Mica is now toiling away on a new $300 billion highway bill that would keep funding at current levels for the next six years. Problem solved, right? Well, sort of.

The House and Senate can still clash over how to pay for this new, larger bill. In the Senate, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) are working on a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill — comparable in size, per year, to Mica’s proposal. But the gas tax won’t fully cover either bill. Some Republicans in the House want to make up the difference by using royalties from new oil and gas drilling. It’s a clever way to bolster drilling, by tying it to popular road projects. Tanya Snyder over at StreetsblogDC has a detailed rundown of this idea, but the main political fact is that Boxer has called it a “non-starter.”

The House and Senate are also likely to have different views on where the money gets spent, although the details of either bill are not yet fully finalized. “Based on what’s been indicated so far, both bills are going to try to find ways to move projects to completion faster,” says Transportation for America’s David Goldberg. “But the House proposal seems to make that the overarching goal. It doesn’t make as many distinctions on what constitutes a wise investment — it just seems to say, we just want you to build it faster.” The Senate approach, by contrast, could include more efforts to reshape national transportation priorities.

The other big battle could come over a small program called Transportation Enhancement Activities. This measure, which provides money for biking and pedestrian safety, was originally set up in 1991. If a neighborhood got sliced in half by new freeways, for instance, the money could help alleviate dangers to pedestrians caused by the new roads. Over time, the program has swelled into a catch-all for a variety of projects — in a few cases, the money has gone toward transportation museums or safe crossings across highways for endangered species. Boxer wants to reform the program but still keep funds to promote pedestrian safety in place. Many Republicans would prefer to eliminate it altogether.

So there’s still plenty to fight about. But now that the House GOP is edging away from its original proposal to cut highway spending by nearly one-third, it should become somewhat easier to thrash out a compromise. At least that’s the theory.

 
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