US transportation ‘blueprint’ doubles spending to $500bn(4)

A congressional reauthorisation of the current US transportation programme would more than double federal spending on infrastructure and create six million jobs over the next six years. It also provides for an infrastructure bank and an agency to oversee highway PPPs.

Leaders of the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today unveiled the blueprint for a “transformational” $500 billion transportation spending reauthorisation program that they say will create six million jobs over the next six years and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

Democratic committee chairman Jim Oberstar and Republican minority leader John Mica presented the blueprint at a joint press conference after both of their respective causes expressed strong support for it in meetings yesterday.

Jim Oberstar

Of the $500 billion, $337 billion would go toward highway construction investment; $13 billion would go toward motor carrier safety; $88 billion for highway mass transit and $12 billion for public transit restoration, according to the blueprint. The remaining $50 billion would go toward developing 11 authorised high-speed rail corridors, such as California’s high speed rail project.

These funds would replace and more than double the funding appropriated by the US’ last transportation authorization bill known as SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users). That legislation, enacted in 2005 and set to sunset with the government’s fiscal year-end on 30 September, guaranteed $244.1 billion for US transportation – an amount that has proven inadequate.

Last September, Congress had to pass an emergency $8 billion emergency reauthorisation to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent and may again be out of money by this August, according to a statement from the Department of Transportation issued yesterday.

To address this short-term shortfall, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has proposed that Congress set aside the full reatuthorisation bill and instead pass an immediate, 18-month highway reauthorisation that will replenish the trust fund.

“The first step is making sure that the Highway Trust Fund is solvent.  The next step is addressing our transportation priorities over the long term,” LaHood said in the statement.

On Capitol Hill today, Oberstar and Mica strongly disagreed with this approach.

“We don’t have time for 18 months. That puts the Damacles’ sword of uncertainty over the future of transportation. It is unacceptable,” Oberstar said. Mica Agreed and pledged Republican support for the legislation, which he called “the most critical jobs bill before the Congress”.

Mica also called the bill “transformational” in its breadth. Besides pledging massive amounts of federal money toward transportation spending, the bill would refocus transportation policy by eliminating 75 spending programs and repackaging the rest into four priority areas of critical asset investment, highway safety improvement, surface transportation and congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

The legislation would also create some new programs. The act envisions a “Projects of National Significance” program that would provide “predictable and sustainable” funding to projects of national importance.

Another new agency – the Office of Public Benefit – would be created within the Federal Highway Administration to oversee federal requirements for public-private partnerships (PPPs) on the nation's highway system. The agency would also review and approve state plans for toll increases on federally-funded highways.

The legislation would also create a National Transportation Infrastructure Bank with a minimum $50 billion in funding for high speed passenger rail, surface transportation projects and transit projects. The bank would function “like a larger version of the existing Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program”, according to the blueprint. TIFIA is a federal lending program for infrastructure. It would also aim to attract private capital for surface transportation projects.

The question of funding for the bank will be resolved next week during hearings with the ways and means committee, Oberstar said.

Oberstar plans to have the legislation for the full reauthorisation formally introduced next week and expects it to come to the house floor for a vote by the end of July.

The goal is to have the bill passed and signed into law before the end of September.

In the past 30 years, Congress has never completed legislative action on the transportation reauthorisation before its expiration, according to the blueprint.