Highway Bill Impasse Imperils Projects, But Gas Tax Would Lapse

By: Kenric Ward | Posted: March 29, 2012 3:55 AM
Florida Construction

Highway construction projects like these in Broward, Martin and Palm Beach counties could be in trouble. credit: dot.state.fl.us

Another Capitol Hill showdown threatens to shut down the Highway Trust Fund on Saturday, halting billions of dollars worth of road projects.

On the positive side, motorists could see an immediate 18-cent reduction at the pump if the federal gasoline tax expires, too.

A two-year, $109 billion funding measure approved by the Senate is going nowhere in the House, but the House has not been able to pass its own plan.

Unless lawmakers come to an agreement, the current highway funding program will expire at midnight Saturday.

Operating on its eighth extension, the transportation bill has become a perennial political football booted between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-led House.

Transportation for America, an advocacy group, wants the House to adopt the Senate measure, which passed 74-22 with the support of two dozen Republicans.

But House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica and the GOP leadership have rejected the Senate package as too costly.

Mica, R-Orlando, has offered a five-year, $260 billion highway bill.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who opposed the Senate plan, said that chamber's bill "spends too much."

"Taxpayers have already spent $34.5 billion to bail out the trust fund in recent years, and I see nothing in this bill that will prevent this from happening again," Rubio said.

Ken Orski, an independent transportation analyst, accused the Senate's Democratic leaders of dishonest dealing and gimmickry.

"One of the most egregious examples was their use of the device of a "manager's amendment" to insert into the bill shortly before the vote -- a provision transferring $5 billion in general funds without offering an immediate offset.

"The provision, buried in the 221-page amendment, was adopted -- probably unread by most senators -- by unanimous consent without debate. The text of the manager's amendment was not publicly revealed until it was posted online just a few hours before the final vote on the Senate bill, as part of the previous day's Congressional Record," Orski related.

Orski predicted that Congress would likely approve a 60- or 90-day extension before adjourning Thursday.

Another industry analyst, Alan Pisarski, said the political and fiscal stakes are too high not to act.

"To have programs and taxes stop would be a disaster of the first order," said Pisarski.

He predicted that if drivers saw an 18 cent reduction in prices at the pump due to the lapsing of the federal gas tax, Congress will find it "hard to get back."

The gasoline tax generates roughly $100 million a day, according to Transportation for America.

Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for the House Transportation Committee, said a failure to reach agreement on a new bill would have a "huge economic impact."

"The government can't collect the funds and states can't get reimbursed for projects they're doing now," he said.

Harclerode estimated that 3,500 Department of Transportation employees would be furloughed if Congress does not extend funding.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and a member of the House Transportation Committee, blamed Republicans for the impasse.

"Republicans' refusal to work with Democrats in crafting a Transportation Reauthorization Bill has cost us the opportunity to deliver much-needed relief to the states and to the traveling public.

"The Transportation Reauthorization Bill that was shoved down our throats in committee follows the Republican mantra of abolishing protective regulations, and turning everything over to the private sector so that they can turn a profit at the expense of the traveling and working public."

But another Transportation Committee member, Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Tallahassee, said the Republican approach would reform the current programs, empower states and save money.

"Representative Southerland supports a long-term surface transportation bill that gives states the flexibility they need to administer their transportation dollars most effectively," said spokesman Matt McCullough.

Harclerode said the House plan is better for Florida because it ensures that the state gets more back on the money it sends to Washington.

"House Resolution 7 improves the rate of return for 'donor states' like Florida from the current 92 percent to 94 percent. The Senate bill does not," Harclerode said.

One of several sticking points is the House version's reliance on additional oil-drilling receipts to pay for highway projects. Many Democrats flatly reject that option.

David Goldberg of Transportation for America said Republicans aren't in a position to dictate terms.

"It's clear that the House can't pass anything without at least some bipartisan compromise. I wouldn't expect the Senate to give ground when there's no consensus in the House," Goldberg said.

Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America," said, "Everyone is trying to drive this thing to the wall. It's very partisan, and people are using transportation as a lever to get what they want."

Yet despite all the posturing against a pressing deadline, Pisarski hasn't abandoned all hope.

"If the House passed its bill, a conference could probably work out something that's reasonable," he predicted. "The issue is in how do you pay for it."

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

Comments (6)

8:52AM MAR 30TH 2012
Do you realy think that the gas price will go down INSTANTLY? No, the stores will still collect it and pocket it while they Wait to see what the government is going to do.
1:17PM MAR 29TH 2012
If Republicans want to once again play "Let's close down government", and risk the lives of Americans with increasingly aging transportation infrastructure, well . . . . see you in November.
Pat Galbraith
6:36AM MAR 29TH 2012
Part of the fallacy of Federal aide. For any money to come from the Federal government, first it must go to the Federal government. The, inside the DC beltway, 15%-20% gets taken off the top - it's call administrative and indirect, and it may come back. But someone else is deciding how to spend your own money.

Two comments stood out. The first was on the Federal gasoline tax - it may be hard to get back if it expires. Personally i hope it's impossible. Second was the comment that we don't get back as much as we send. And you expect different? Remember, once it goes to Washington it is no longer the people's money. It is government money. Subtle, but very real, difference.

Consider a revolutionary concept. Keep the money at home and decide here how to, or whether, it is spent.
5:30PM MAR 29TH 2012
Oh yes - let this group of Florida Legislators have that money - more use of our money for a legislator's personal projects like a legislator's own unwanted separate university and a road through nowhere (except by land he owns), etc., etc. And of course we don't need no stinking federal government, its taxes (even gasoline taxes) and all that it does. No military, no interstate highways, no social security, no federal nothing. Get real folks, let's have a dialogue of real solutions, not foolish idealogy.
8:07AM MAR 29TH 2012
I couldn't have stated it better.

Everyone seems to forget the "administration" costs for each and every program instituted by each level of government. Gone are the days it was limited to 10% overhead. With each level of government skimming their admin costs off the top, the actual "working capital" gets smaller and smaller.

Now would be a perfect time to actually START cutting the spending at the top level. Since the GOP blowout in 2010, I haven't seen ANY results of cutting costs - on the federal level. The GOP are just as addictive to spending as the Dems.
Pat Galbraith
6:37AM MAR 30TH 2012
Amen. Aide only means you get to spend your money somebody else's way. And Frank, we need a Federal government. About one-third the size of the one we have. If the people in Florida want lousy roads - doubt it - that's their business. People in Montana shouldn't have anything to say about it.

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