The White House is proposing a whopping $556 billion for a new, six-year surface transportation funding bill that is almost three years overdue. It’s entirely possible that Republicans' total for transportation will be half that amount or less.
Both Republicans and the White House agree on one thing: The long-awaited measure to fund highways, railroads, and bridges should be fully paid for. How to actually come up with the cash, however, will be a matter of considerable debate over the next year. Fuel tax increases are off the table from Republicans’ perspective. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., wants to comb through current funding programs for unspent funds—the equivalent of searching the sofa cushions for loose change. Mica also wants to leverage public-private partnerships to pay for highway maintenance. Even by the most generous estimates, it’s hard to imagine more than $150 billion coming from those sources.
The national highway funding system has been operating on temporary funding extensions since the last surface transportation measure expired in 2009. President Obama has made transportation investment a top priority for the coming year. He is renewing his request for $50 billion in the coming year “to spur job growth and allow states to initiate sound multiyear investments.” That proposal, issued last fall, fell flat in Congress.
The White House is also seeking $53 billion over six years for high-speed rail projects and is asking for $8 billion of that money in 2012. The likelihood of getting even a fraction of that sum is slim, considering that rail tops the list of programs that Republicans consider expendable. Still, Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s commitment to high-speed rail demonstrates their willingness to plow forward in spite of the opposition. From the administration's perspective, investing in rail is about jobs and growth. As Vice President Joe Biden put it last week, “There are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation, one of which is infrastructure.”
Obama also hasn’t given up on a broader plan for a national infrastructure bank that would be housed in the Transportation Department and dole out money for big projects that use multiple transportation modes and could take many years to complete. Those projects might lie fallow without federal expertise and resources to jump start them, according to DOT officials. Obama is seeking $30 billion over six years for the infrastructure bank.
Republicans should applaud one piece of the administration’s transportation budget proposal—consolidating 55 highway programs down to five. “This would give states and localities greater flexibility to direct resources to their highest priorities,” the budget said.