House delays long-term transportation plan over funding, timing

Still searching for the money to pay for it , the House leadership has put the brakes on a long-term transportation spending plan, but Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica says he’s confident that the legislation will pass before the current funding extension expires March 31.

State transportation planners say their efforts to move ahead with new highway and transit projects have been hamstrung by congressional failure to approve a new multi-year plan. The last big bill, passed in 2005, expired two years ago and planners have been living with the uncertainty under a series of stop-gap funding extensions.

Mica (R-Fla.) on Wednesday told a gathering of transportation experts that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) cited “the constraints of time” in the run-up to Christmas in asking him to delay the bill.

“I could have dropped it Friday,” Mica said, referring to formally introducing a bill that has yet to be publicly presented in written form.

Though he said the primary reason for the delay was the press of other House business, Mica said Wednesday that finding the means to pay for the bill remained an issue. He won a concession from Boehner and Cantor this summer that allowed him to craft a bill with more spending than current House rules permit.

That required, however, finding new funding. Boehner later proposed opening new offshore and Arctic areas to oil exploration, and taxing output from those new wells to fund the bill. His plan was not well received by many Democrats and environmentalists.

Mica described the drilling proposal as a “Band-Aid” that would cover short-term funding gaps in the new bill until a more concrete solution can be found. Though public and congressional sentiment are strongly against imposing a fee-per-mile tolling system, most transportation experts acknowledge that with revenue from the federal gas tax dwindling, the vehicle-miles-traveled tax, as it is known, is best option.

Mica on Wednesday reiterated his belief that there is a lucrative middle ground by keeping existing interstate highway lanes toll-free but encouraging public-private partnerships to develop lucrative high-occupancy toll lanes like those being built on the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

On the Senate side, Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Committee on Environment and Public Works displayed a rare moment of bipartisan good cheer last month in a unanimous vote to send a two-year transportation bill to the floor. The bill would provide almost $80 billion for surface transportation, but it arrived on the floor with the promise to fill a $29 billion gap between the revenue stream that pays for transportation — the Highway Trust Fund — and what Boxer (D-Calif.) wants to spend.

Mica, in informal remarks to transportation experts gathered by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, dismissed the two-year bill as inadequate to meet the needs of state planners for longer-term funding stability. He said he expected the House bill will cover five or six years.

“There will be a few points that will raise some eyebrows,” said Mica, who has outlined the intent of his bill to consolidate agencies and streamline regulations but said that he is in no hurry to make the bill public. “There are a lot of good things in the Boxer bill, and I look forward to working with her.”

Mica said he was confident that his bill could pass the House before the current extension expires.

In a related transportation issue, House and Senate committee staff members met Wednesday to continue discussions on a major aviation funding reauthorization. The Federal Aviation Administration is operating under its 22nd short-term funding extension since its last funding bill expired in 2007.

The stalemate, which has hobbled progress on a $40 billion new air traffic system that will revolutionize air traffic, is over a handful of issues that are irrelevant to the vast majority of passengers.

Though both the House and Senate approved FAA bills this year, a conference committee has yet to meet and senior staff haven’t been able to resolve conflict over a labor ruling that primarily would affect Delta Air Lines, the volume of air traffic in and out of Reagan National Airport and federal subsidies for service to rural airports.

Mica has remained optimistic, but his Senate counterpart, John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) gave a more grim assessment of prospects for agreement when he spoke last month before the Aero Club of Washington, an industry group.

On Wednesday, Mica said, “I’m doing everything I can to finish that before Christmas. There are two or three issues that have to be decided at the member or higher level.”

Mica set out to provoke the Senate into action in July when he included provisions in the 22nd extension that he knew were unpalatable to key Senate members. The resulting fuss lead to a temporary shutdown of the FAA and the furlough of 4,000 federal workers.

“If they didn’t like my last extension, they sure as hell won’t like this one,” Mica said Wednesday. “But I don’t want to do another extension. I will take whatever measures ... to get that bill passed.”

 
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