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House GOP seeks mass transit deal to revive transportation bill

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The House GOP leadership will try to broker a tricky deal to appease friends and foes of mass transit as they seek to revive a stalled long-term transportation bill.

“We’re trying to cobble together the different factions to get enough votes to pass it,” House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) said Tuesday, describing his Monday meeting with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “We do not have a plan yet. We have five [or] six options we’re considering.”

The five-year transportation bill approved last month by Mica’s committee collapsed under pressure from warring factions when it reached the floor. GOP solidarity fractured between urban and rural legislators who split over a provision that would end dedicated funding for mass transit in favor of a one-time infusion of cash.

“I think mass transit shafted themselves,” Mica said in remarks to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

He elaborated afterward in an interview, saying the bill’s promise to provide transit money from other sources for five years was a better bet for transit than continuing to rely on revenue from the beleaguered Highway Trust Fund. The fund, which dedicates a portion of the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax to transit, is running low on revenue as a result of more fuel-efficient vehicles and other factors.

Transit advocates have marshaled furious opposition to the bill, fearing their systems would be in peril once the bill’s one-time funding commitment expired.

“They’ve caused more problems, sort of shooting themselves in the foot,” Mica said in the interview. “Why would you want to be part of something that is already hemorrhaging, which is the trust fund?”

Mica said he and Boehner would try to “pacify people who aren’t real transit fans” and work to pass a bill this year, countering suggestions that Republican objectives might fare better after the November elections.

“Anybody who thinks it’s going to get better after this election, you’re smoking the funny weed,” Mica told the AASHTO crowd.

The bill also has been attacked by members of the bipartisan congressional bike coalition because it ends dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Mica told the gathering of state transportation officials that decisions on those programs should be left to them rather than mandated by Washington.

The bill is devoid of earmarks, which were once wildly popular among legislators who used them as evidence to voters that they could deliver hometown transportation projects. The earmarks also provided useful leverage as the House leadership sought to win enough votes to pass a bill.

“The goal is 218 votes” in the House, Mica said. “I don’t have the mechanism of earmarks to horse trade, but we do have policy issues that there are differences of opinions on that need to be resolved.”

Mica ridiculed an Obama administration proposal to use money saved by winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to fund transportation as “smoke and mirrors.”

As Mica and Boehner negotiate to resolve those differences, the Senate is moving forward with its own two-year transportation plan that has won bipartisan support.

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