A six-year transportation funding bill that Republicans in the House of Representatives outlined Thursday would sharply cut highway and transit funding and seek to curb Amtrak and high-speed rail projects that the Obama administration supports.
House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Florida) said the bill would keep the federal Highway Trust Fund from running out of money, but critics said it would shortchange the nation's transportation needs and hurt economic recovery efforts.
The $230 billion package is well below the White House request of $556 billion, and reflects the plans for deep federal spending cuts crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). Mica said the bill would contain no earmarks.
"While some continue to advocate the same old tax-and-spend approach, I prefer a new direction," Mica said in a statement. "This long-term plan is the only fiscally responsible proposal and will ensure the continued solvency of the Highway Trust Fund."
The plan wouldn't include any increase in the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, which is the main source of funding for the highway fund and hasn't changed since 1993.
Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a Democratic member of the committee, criticized the GOP plan.
"The Republicans prefer to protect tax loopholes and cuts that add tremendously to the national debt, yet won't make needed investments that rebuild crumbling infrastructure and put people back to work," DeFazio said. "We need robust investment, and this proposal does not measure up."
While Mica said the plan would help give states "stability," some officials expressed worry at the depth of the cuts.
"We continue to have concerns about the proposed funding levels included in the bill," said John Horsley, the executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The Mica plan also would cut Amtrak's federal subsidy by 25 percent over the next two years, and would effectively cut $1.1 billion over two years from President Obama's high-speed rail initiatives by redefining "high speed."
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) who heads the committee's railroads panel, said the bill considered 125 mph the minimum for a project to be designated high-speed; the Department of Transportation's threshold is 110 mph. The new definition could affect several projects under way across the country.
House Republicans voted earlier this year to cut funding for Amtrak and high-speed rail projects that Obama supports. Last month, Mica and Shuster introduced a bill to privatize Amtrak and let companies compete to operate its routes.
The previous $286 billion multiyear transportation bill expired in 2009, and Congress has passed seven temporary extensions since then. The current funding runs out September 30. The House must reconcile its plan with the Senate's two-year, $109 billion proposal, offered by the Environment and Public Works Committee. The Senate plan would keep funding at current levels.
"We've got to get it done," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) the chairwoman of the Senate panel. "There's tremendous support from business, from workers and from the American people for a transportation bill that promotes sound economic growth."
During a Twitter forum at the White House on Wednesday, Obama said now wasn't the right time to hold back on infrastructure spending, with plenty of people who need the work and construction costs at record lows.
"For us to move forward on a major infrastructure initiative where we're putting people to work right now, including construction workers, who were disproportionately unemployed when the housing bubble went bust ... (is) an example of making an investment now that ends up having huge payoffs down the road," Obama said.
Ethan Pollack, a senior policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning research center in Washington, called the Republican plan "a tax on future generations."
"If we have crumbling roads and bridges, then we're going to be left globally un-competitive, less productive and wasting much more time stuck in traffic," Pollack said.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the United States a grade of "D" on its "Report Card for America's Infrastructure" for at least a decade.
McClatchy Newspapers reporter Michael Doyle contributed to this article.
McClatchy: © 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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