U.S. House digs into transportation issuesby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House of Representatives spent its first full week of work in 2012 focused on transportation issues. On Tuesday, House Republicans released their proposal for a five-year $260 billion highway bill and on Friday, the House passed a new five-year Federal Aviation Administration bill.
The two bills have some important implications for Minnesota, not the least of which is a potential for fewer federal dollars to flow into the state.
Emil Frankel, who served in President George W. Bush's Department of Transportation, said the Republicans' plan to use royalties from expanded domestic oil and gas production was unlikely to bring anywhere near enough money to cover the growing gap between the nation's infrastructure needs and the revenue the gas tax brings in.
"Bottom line, states like Minnesota are going to have to look to themselves more even to maintain transportation infrastructure in a state of good repair," Frankel said, estimating that federal highway funds to the states could fall as much as 30 percent. In 2010, the Minnesota Department of Transportation received 33 percent of its budget — or $472 million — from federal funds, mostly from the gas tax.
MASS TRANSIT COULD LOSE DEDICATED FUNDING
The Republican highway bill proposal would also sever a decades-long link between gas tax revenue and mass transit projects. The House Ways and Means Committee voted Friday to stop dedicating a portion of the gas tax to public transport and instead directed the money to road and bridge projects. That would mean transit projects would lose their dedicated funding stream at a time when public transit ridership is growing nationwide and state budgets are tight.
"Everything's going to have fight for guaranteed funding, and we have highway projects that are woefully behind," said Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican member of the Ways and Means Committee who represents Eden Prairie, Minn.
For example, in Minnesota, plans to expand light rail in the Twin Cities and commuter rail to the suburbs could be affected.
While Democrats and transit advocates worry about the potential funding shortfalls for their favored programs, conservative groups have come out swinging against the House Republican bill because they say it doesn't do enough to shrink the size of government.
"Simply put, this is a massive 846-page bill that doesn't cut any spending at all," said the Club for Growth, which warned House members that their highway bill votes would be tracked and noted on an annual scorecard.
A PARTIAL VICTORY FOR HEAVY TRUCKS
Safety advocates and the freight rail industry won a victory Thursday when they rolled back language in the draft highway bill that would have allowed states to authorize trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds — up from 80,000 — onto interstate highways. Those large trucks are currently allowed to operate on smaller state roads in Minnesota. Logging and sugar beet interests in Minnesota also wanted access to the interstates.
But first-term Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack managed to secure an exemption for Minnesota that allows the state to create three 25-mile corridors on interstate highways for larger trucks. The corridors are likely to run through his 8th Congressional district to allow logging trucks to avoid populated parts of Duluth.
ESSENTIAL AIR SERVICE TO CONTINUE, PERHAPS EXPAND
The FAA bill, which is the result of bipartisan compromise with the Senate, also has implications for Minnesota. One point of contention along the bill's tortured path was the fate of the Essential Air Service program, which provides a federal subsidy for passenger air service to isolated communities. Three Minnesota airports, Range Regional, Thief River Falls Regional and Falls International, are part of the program.
Republicans initially proposed ending the $193 million program, citing low traffic and high per-passenger costs. After drawn-out negotiations (and a partial shutdown of the FAA last summer) both parties agreed to preserve the EAS program but cut spending levels over the next three years.
But an analysis by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense suggests that the bill may contain an off-budget funding mechanism that could lead to an increase in funds for EAS.
"Over the next four years, Congress' "cut" in EAS funding will actually add up to $44 million to one of the most wasteful programs imaginable," wrote Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
ELECTION YEAR POLITICS
After a year of brinksmanship on Capitol Hill, House Republicans see the highway bill as a chance to take up President Barack Obama's call to renew the country's decaying infrastructure while leaving a conservative mark on a program that has developed a reputation for sometimes wasteful spending. While Democrats and Republicans were able to find consensus on the FAA bill and ultimately pass a long-term reauthorization, it's not clear the highway bill proposed by House Republicans will experience the same fate.
House Democrats were angry about being left out of the drafting process and of being given less than 48 hours to study the $260 billion bill's language before a markup hearing. These concerns, coupled with Democrats' substantive concerns about the contents of the bill suggest no Democrats will cross party lines to support the measure. Further, with conservative groups pressuring Republican House members from the right, the bill could also lose large numbers of tea party-backed members when it reaches the floor.
The bill is also becoming a vehicle for individual members to highlight themselves ahead of what's likely to be a tumultuous election year. Cravaack, based in the DFL-leaning and union-friendly 8th District, successfully attached an amendment to the highway bill that would require federal transportation projects to use American-made steel.
Meanwhile, the Senate is working on its own two-year highway bill that has support from both parties. Although House Republicans and many state department of transportation would prefer a longer-term highway bill than the Senate's proposal, they may not have a better option.
- All Things Considered, 02/03/2012, 4:49 p.m.