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Mica and Nadler Duke It Out on the Pages of Politico Over Transpo Funding

1:49 PM EDT on May 23, 2011

In an op-ed in Politico this morning, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) calls for getting rid of waste and inefficiencies in the transportation system, shifting more power to the states, and “doing more with less.”

The emphasis, of course, being on the word “less.” Mica is still gunning for a bill at existing revenue levels that would “dramatically enhance” the value of those funds. “We are exploring every responsible means of doing this,” he asserts.

Meanwhile, New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, also on the committee, wrote in his own Politico op-ed, “The single greatest challenge is to fund the investments that we so desperately need in the face of a Republican-sponsored hysteria for budget cutting that pays no regard to the consequences.”

Mica attempts to make up for an estimated $2 trillion infrastructure need by rooting out waste and inefficiencies in the system. No one can argue with his desire to maximize efficiency, but that is no replacement for adequate funding. He wants to improve the successful TIFIA loan program and work to make other programs like Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing more successful. He writes:

The committee hopes to consolidate more than 100 federal surface transportation programs. Over the past 50 years, dozens of new programs have been created to address issues beyond the original programmatic goals. We are examining every program to determine its viability. By consolidating duplicative programs and eliminating ones not in the national interest, we can reduce the Transportation Department’s bureaucracy and better utilize our existing resources.

Reliance on the federal bureaucracy impedes our efficiency. According to the Federal Highway Administration, highway projects can take up to 15 years to complete, from planning through construction. This is government at its worst. States and local governments deal with an endless review process, while needed safety and maintenance improvements languish and construction costs escalate.

A project review process is necessary to protect the environment, but we can provide protections in a more reasonable manner. The committee intends to streamline this costly, cumbersome and duplicative review process.

Some consolidation is called for, and we've heard enough from stakeholders of all stripes to know that environmental reviews can be streamlined without being gutted. But Mica is using the language of the Road Gang here. Highway boosters often defend their turf by saying that urban transit and bike-ped investment falls "beyond the original programmatic goals" of the surface transportation program. "Eliminating [programs] not in the national interest" reads like code for consolidating the meager sums guaranteed for active transportation out of existence.

Meanwhile, as we reported last week, experts are unanimous in asserting that dreams of a six-year bill are all but dead, despite Mica’s best efforts to keep them alive. And they overwhelmingly say it’s the insistence on underfunding the bill that will deflate enthusiasm among stakeholders and lose the support of many in Congress.

Nadler affirms his support for additional revenues -- an unpopular topic in this Congress, and with the economy still struggling to recover. Still, he says more resources are needed to fund the real needs of the crumbling transportation infrastructure system.

We will need some combination of increasing the gas tax, making that tax inflation-sensitive, such as by indexing it to the cost of construction or some other indicator, and securing other revenue sources. We should look into the feasibility of assessing a fee on shipping containers, taxing oil at the refinery head or even charging a fee on energy speculation.

Nadler also says the country needs to break apart "siloes" that divide funding for highways, transit or safety programs, and replace those with a more multimodal framework. He also favors greater ability to fund regional projects, rather than channeling all money through the states.

Meanwhile, Melissa Porter, senior counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, recently told the annual meeting of the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors that until the committee has a better sense of how Congress will get the money, it's hard to look at a six-year reauthorization bill, according to a report in TruckingInfo.

Either way, the path Mica is proposing appears to be a road to nowhere. The TruckingInfo story on the CAGTC meeting also quotes Alex Herrgott, a Republican staffer on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as saying that no member of Congress will want to pass a bill that contains a 30 percent funding cut, as Mica is proposing, with no new revenues. "It doesn't matter if they are a conservative Republican or a moderate Democrat," Hergott said.

Nadler's proposal of increasing user fees at a time of economic distress might be just as unrealistic as Mica's proposal to starve the transportation system. Perhaps that's why Melissa Porter told the CAGTC she's hearing a lot of talk of shifting to a short-term bill to address policy concerns, as the Brookings Institution suggested last year. Indeed, it's hard to envision another way forward, aside from another round of extensions to drag this fight out until after the next presidential election.

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