WASHINGTON — House Republicans are proposing to spend about $260 billion over the next 4 1/2 years on transportation programs, as well as substantially increase the size of trucks permitted on highways, according to a draft bill being introduced this week.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and other GOP leaders are expected to introduce the bill on Tuesday. Mica's committee is poised to approve the measure on Thursday.
Significant policy changes in the bill include giving states far greater power — and the U.S. Department of Transportation far less say — over how federal transportation aid is spent. The bill also consolidates many existing transportation programs, and makes it easier and quicker for road construction and other transportation projects to meet the requirements of federal environmental laws.
States could permit trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds — and in some cases as much as 126,000 pounds — on interstate highways under the bill. The current limit is 80,000 pounds in most states. Increased weight limits are supported by the trucking industry, but opposed by safety advocates.
"Larger and heavier trucks mean bigger safety risks for highway drivers," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., wrote in a letter to House lawmakers last week asking them not to raise weight limits.
The bill would maintain current spending on transportation despite declining gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, which historically have paid for highway and transit programs.
A separate committee will decide how to cover the gap between gas-tax revenues and the spending levels proposed in the bill. GOP leaders have said they plan to use revenue from expanded oil and natural gas drilling, but haven't provided details. However, congressional aides knowledgeable about the proposal said it would include drilling off the Virginia coast and in federal leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The aides weren't authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.
The bill provides enough money to prevent the nation's roads, bridges and transit systems from falling further into disrepair, but not enough to significantly reduce the backlog of needed work on transportation infrastructure, transportation experts said. A congressionally mandated commission estimated in 2009 that it would require $200 billion a year to reduce the backlog while maintaining the current transportation system.
"Clearly this level of funding is inadequate to support our needs as a nation," said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington think tank that supports greater transportation investment.
But the bill is expected to save jobs in construction, bus manufacturing and other transportation-related industries in part because it allows state transportation departments to make long-term commitments of funds. Those kinds of commitments are usually necessary before companies can go forward with major new transportation projects.
Each $1 billion in transportation construction spending supports about 30,000 jobs, said Andy Herrmann, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The GOP bill is "holding along the lines of what we've been doing in the past," he said.
But that may be enough to propel the bill through the House in an election year where voter regard for Congress is at rock bottom and lawmakers are eager to show off an accomplishment.
The last long-term transportation bill expired in 2009. Congress has kept transportation aid flowing to states through a series of short-term extensions. The current extension expires on March 31.
The Senate is working on its own bill, which would spend $109 billion over two years. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a co-author of the bill, says the bill's sponsors have a plan to pay for the measure, but hasn't detailed how that would happen.
A bipartisan proposal introduced in the Senate on Monday would continue transit spending at current levels while giving the regulators greater safety oversight of transit agencies, including the power to impose fines. The Banking Committee is expected to approve the measure on Thursday, after which it will be incorporated into the Senate transportation bill.
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