Rep. John Mica promised state DOT leaders this morning that he would deliver a six-year reauthorization bill. He said he had previously thought of advancing a shorter-term bill but transportation officials convinced him of the need for greater certainty. With the full zeal of the converted, he announced, “Anyone who talks about anything less than a six-year bill, I’ll take you outside and beat the crap out of you.”
Later in the morning, Republican staffers argued for a Highway Trust Fund devoted just to highways (“back to basics,” they call it) but Mica stands firm in calling for “not just a highway bill, but a transportation bill.” He told AASHTO that he wants the bill to cover all modes. When he talks about finding money in underused programs, like the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing Program, he made it clear that he would keep that money for rail and not shift it to other modes. Somewhat opaquely, he said the rail section of the transportation bill “will be anywhere from one paragraph to 20 pages.”
Mica made it clear he didn’t have a bill in his back pocket and couldn’t answer any questions about its size. He grumbled that he and then-committee chair Jim Oberstar were ready to pass a bill back in 2009 but the administration wanted to wait 18 months, and even that 18-month hold has been a patchwork of six extensions. (It’ll be seven by the time this week is over – the House is voting this afternoon on the seventh extension, to keep the program going at current levels until September 30.)
Meanwhile, Mica called unemployment insurance just another “cockamamie” idea for putting people back to work, saying if we had just put that money toward infrastructure we’d have six percent unemployment by now.
He, and Secretary Ray LaHood, who spoke after him, reiterated for the umpteenth time that while the transportation system has to “spend within its means” (because “that’s the directive of the House of Representatives”), the gas tax is decidedly “off the table,” to the great frustration of many state DOT officials. They wondered how he would achieve his goal of “stabilizing the highway trust fund” without a gas tax hike.
State officials also expressed that Mica’s directive of “doing more with less” rubbed them the wrong way. One official stood up in a later session and said she finds that departments usually end up doing less with less and doesn’t really know how it can be otherwise.
They do, however, find common ground on the need to speed up project delivery, especially when federal money (and federal requirements) are involved. Mica said this was one of the most prominent issues the committee heard about on its listening tour.
“We can deliver projects faster without running over environmental rules or eliminating rights for redress,” Mica said. “We can do things concurrently; we can shorten timeframes.”
For his part, Secretary LaHood spoke mainly in soundbites about the president’s “bold” plan, “the boldest in the history of transportation.” He trumpeted the achievements of the stimulus plan and said criticism that it didn’t work is just “baloney.” He asked audience members for specific proposals for saving money, raising new revenues, and speeding up projects but had nothing of his own to offer about how the administration plans to do any of those things. Indeed, the administration has made it clear that it plans to leave those thorny questions to Congress.