No action on US transportation bill this year

John Mica, the Republican leader of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said during candid remarks at a conference today that he didn’t see any way Congress would take up the measure until at least 2011. And even then, he doubted Congress’ willingness to raise taxes in order to finance the $500bn bill.

Nearly one year after introducing an ambitious $500 billion transportation spending bill, Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today conceded that legislative action on the measure was unlikely to happen until at least next year.

“Let me be pretty candid. There is probably not going to be another transportation bill this year,” John Mica, the Republican leader of the committee, said during a meeting on Capitol Hill today. “I just don’t see it.”

John Mica

“They want to have it next year,” added Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio, a 23-year veteran of the committee, referring to the Obama administration. “That’s beyond me how we do it next year,” he said, because 2011 would mark the beginning of the next presidential election cycle.

Mica’s and DeFazio’s remarks, delivered one after another, likely came as a one-two punch to the dozens of transportation executives and lobbyists gathered to hear them speak at the annual Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors meeting in Washington DC. The coalition, formed in 2001 to urge more investment in America’s major freight routes, convened on Washington today to urge action on a new, freight-friendly transportation bill.

There is probably not going to be another transportation bill this year

John Mica

The old transportation bill from 2005 expired at the end of last September, raising the need for another legislative measure that would set the budget for how much the US will spend on its various transportation programmes. 

In June 2009, Mica had agreed with his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Representative Jim Oberstar, to move forward on an ambitious six-year, $500 billion transportation spending bill that would funnel more money toward high-speed rail, highway construction and create an infrastructure bank for funding big infrastructure projects.

But the bill was rendered a lesser priority by the fierce debate over healthcare reform, so Congress passed a series of short-term extensions of the 2005 transportation bill. The extensions spelled uncertainty for infrastructure investors, who were left in the dark as to when the Oberstar bill, which contained some investor-unfriendly provisions like Federal oversight body for public-private partnerships, might see the light of the legislative chambers.

With the healthcare debate over, Mica indicated that the main thing holding back legislative action on the bill is lack of political courage among politicians to find a way to pay for it.

“The main component is, of course, the financing piece,” he said, and members of Congress are unlikely to vote to raise the gas tax, the main source of revenues for US surface transportation spending, before the 2 November elections.

“Do any of you think there will be a vote, a positive vote on increasing the gas tax between now and November second? Raise your hand, because I want to see who’s been smoking dope,” Mica joked.

Nor did Mica foresee willingness among members of Congress to take up debate on transportation issues after the November elections. “When they come back here after the election, it’s going to be like Hiroshima. They’re going to walk around all in shock, suffering from radiation burns from the heat of the election. They’re not going to pass a gas tax or a [transportation] bill,” he said, predicting a “conservative wave” at the voting booths.

“That brings us to the next scenario: January [2011]. Well, nothing happens in January,” he said, because that’s the time new members of Congress usually take to get organized on Capitol Hill.

But even after that, he predicted Congress is unlikely to do anything. “Do you think that the new Congress is going to come in, in February, after they organize, and pass the gas tax increase? No way. It’s just not going to happen,” he said.

Both Mica and DeFazio expressed disappointment at their Congressional colleagues’ lack of action on transportation, especially in light of the recessionary environment.

“We need a long-term transportation authorisation,” DeFazio said. “It’s one of the best ways to create jobs.”

“The country needs the bill,” Mica said.