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House Republicans to unveil transportation bill

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House Republicans will present a long-awaited plan to fund the nation’s transportation system on Tuesday, a proposal that would shift more decision-making authority to state governments, dramatically reduce the time spent on environmental reviews and encourage private companies to expand the highway system by building toll roads.

The bill also would require that people convicted of drunken driving use ignition interlock devices for a year, a rare move to impose federal will in an area of state jurisdiction.

Spreading about $260 billion over a five-year span, the House proposal would continue to fund transportation programs at close to current levels.

It would provide an annual average of $40.6 billion for highways and $10.1 billion for transit over that period. In total, that’s less than the annual $54 billion the Senate has proposed in its two-year bill.

Neither bill comes close to the $262 billion a year that a panel of 80 transportation experts said the nation should spend to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the end of their planned life cycles.

“Neither the Senate bill nor the House bill is about solving the nation’s transportation challenge,” said a transportation industry official who was briefed on the House bill Monday. “I don’t think even the authors of either bill have said this is what the country needs.”

Instead, they sought to set funding at a level palatable to cost-cutting members in both chambers, said the official, who asked not to be named so that he could speak freely without fear of reprisals.

The gap between what experts and most members of Congress would like to spend and what’s included in the two bills exists because the Highway Trust Fund no longer takes in enough gas tax revenues to sustain surface transportation needs.

Even the gap between proposed spending and trust fund income amounts to $12 billion in the Senate’s two-year bill and an estimated $50 billion to $60 billion in the House bill. Committees in both chambers are scheduled to pursue the funding question this week, with House Republicans looking to glean fresh tax dollars by expanding oil exploration in the Arctic and off the U.S. coast.

Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, spoke out against that on Monday even before the GOP plan was made public.

“These giveaways to oil companies won’t rebuild our roads or fix our bridges,” Markey said. “We need to build American roads and create American jobs, not erect another political roadblock to help corporate special interests.”

The House bill reflects the Republican vision of a smaller, less bureaucratic federal government. It gives states far greater authority over how they spend federal transportation dollars but also requires greater accountability and transparency.

Surveys have shown that controversies like Alaska’s infamous bridge to nowhere have left the public so suspicious of transportation projects that most people resist appeals for more funding.

With the goal of streamlining the project approval process, a desire supported by Democrats and the White House, the House bill would expedite environmental reviews that currently take up to five years.

It would require that they be completed in 270 days, and environmental issues deemed minor could be determined on the state level without federal review.

“What they’re doing is instituting some very specific deadlines for federal agencies involved in the review of transportation projects,” another transportation official said.

Among the controversial issues addressed in the bill is that of truck weight. It would allow the maximum weight of trucks to increase from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 and their length to grow by five feet. Safety advocates and the rail industry are ready to lobby against that change.

Though there is little support in Congress for the notion of imposing tolls on existing interstate highways, the GOP plan would encourage private investment in projects that build additional lanes on those highways and collect tolls to pay for them.

The proposal for mandatory interlocks is included in the Senate bill. They currently are required in 15 states, but the laws vary from state to state, with some states only requiring them for repeat offenders and others leaving it to the discretion of judges.

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