The next flash point in the debate over the nation’s will to live within its means may emerge this week as House Republicans present a long-term transportation bill expected to cut funding for highways and mass transit by almost one third.
Should the bill emerge from the House unscathed, it may collide head-on with a very different Senate version that is marginally closer to a proposal from the White House.
Whatever the outcome, transportation funding provides one of the most clear-cut and readily understood snapshots of the rivalry swirling around taxation, spending and national needs.
Money to pay for transportation comes from various sources, but the overwhelming majority is produced by the federal tax on gasoline. That tax has not increased since 1993, and voters have made clear in surveys that they don’t want it to. At the same time, there is a need for massive spending to restore the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.
Disagreement over the three options — raise the gas tax, dramatically cut spending or find new revenue sources — has stalled a renewal of the six-year transportation spending bill since it expired in 2009. Since then lawmakers have passed a series of short-term extensions. But planning for roads and mass transit requires long-term funding commitments, and the lack of such provisions has stalled many state and local transportation projects.
The reauthorization bill expected Thursday from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) will lay out details of the cut-spending option. Transportation industry officials expect the bill will reduce spending to match gas tax revenues, which have been falling steadily because of the poor economy and the rise of fuel-efficient vehicles.
Before the Democrats lost control of the House last year, the committee now headed by Mica was discussing a $450 billion reauthorization bill.
The Obama administration has sought between $500 billion and $550 billion.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the public works subcommittee, is said to be preparing a bill that would maintain funding at the previous level for two years, with an allowance for inflation since that bill was passed in 2003. That would require augmenting the Highway Trust Fund, beneficiary of gas tax revenue, with an additional $12 billion from other sources.
The Mica bill is expected to provide between $215 billion and $230 billion over six years, according to congressional staff members.
“It’s pretty devastating,” said one staff member who spoke on background because of the sensitivity of the discussions. “Last year we were looking at $550 [billion] and now we’re looking at $230 [billion]. Big difference.”
Mica has been dedicated to streamlining and consolidating government enterprises, eliminating environmental programs he feels slow progress, and privatizing federally supported programs — notably elements of Amtrak.
A bipartisan group of House members that included Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) planned to send a letter Wednesday to Mica and ranking committee member Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), urging them to maintain current funding levels or increase them.
“According to numerous experts, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. needs to invest an additional $1 trillion beyond current levels in the next 10 years just to maintain a state of good repair and meet demand,” the letter said.
Two major studies in the past year have urged increased spending to revitalize the nation’s aging infrastructure. The Urban Land Institute concluded that the United States needed to invest $2 trillion to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the end of their planned life cycles.
Without that investment, the institute warned that the United States would fall dramatically behind much of the world in providing transportation networks needed to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
That report buttressed the findings last fall by a panel of 80 experts led by former transportation secretaries Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner. The panel concluded that as much as $262 billion a year must be spent on U.S. highways, rail networks and air transportation systems.