The House Transportation Committee's highways and transit subcommittee approved a bipartisan $450 billion multi-year transportation bill yesterday after members soundly rejected the Obama administration's plan to delay the process for 18 months.
The panel's voice vote came as governors and lawmakers in two meetings yesterday voiced support for the creation of a national infrastructure bank. The bill does not include a provision for such a bank, but the bill's sponsors expect it will be added to the legislation in the future.
Before the vote, the panel's chairman, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said: "There is a bipartisan national consensus that America has a failed and failing transportation system."
"This is a national crisis," he said, adding, "An 18-month delay is not acceptable."
Rep. John Mica from Florida, the full committee's top Republican who sat with the subcommittee, said that he and committee chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., "were stunned with the administration's request that we table this for 18 months" because "this is our jobs bill. This is our true stimulus bill."
Oberstar, who also joined the panel, said the administration "stirred the waters and roiled them up" but added that the committee "is sailing forward.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee with jurisdiction over transportation, has said she would supportan 18-month delay.
Oberstar said the purpose of the panel markup yesterday was to "let everyone discuss their ideas" before a vote is held by the committee next month.
Republicans submitted 13 amendments to the bill yesterday but, after describing them and their importance, agreed to withdraw them for re-proposal when the committee meets to vote on the bill.
One proposal by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., would allow states to transfer funding between highway programs.
Another proposed amendment by Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., would modify the selection criteria for nationally significant transportation projects to require they be in varying geographic areas and in both urban and rural areas.
In addition, Diaz-Balart, along with three other panel members, proposed an amendment that would add a "sense of Congress" that every state should receive at least 92% of what they contribute to the highway account of the federal highway trust fund.
An amendment proposed by Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Okla., would raise the threshold to $1 billion from $500 million for projects required to submit management plans and annual financial plans and to $500 million from $100 million for projects that only need to submit annual financial plans.
Meanwhile, members from several key congressional committees yesterday said at two separate meetings that the federal government should establish a national infrastructure bank that would provide secondary market liquidity by purchasing infrastructure securities and issuing grants and loans to pay for transportation projects.
Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Steve Israel of New York, and Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut made the case that the bank should resemble one proposed last month by DeLauro that would issue "public benefit bonds" exempt from state and local taxes over the next 15 years.
The bank would have $250 billion of subscribed capital available as needed from the Treasury Department and would receive $5 billion per year over five years through congressional appropriations, which would leverage a total of $625 billion for infrastructure, Ellison said. He added that grassroots support, possibly using Twitter and other social networking tools, would be critical to create political momentum for such a measure.
A representative from the private sector, David Seltzer of Mercator Advisors, said the bank should be a three-legged stool providing funds or loans to borrowers, competitive risk-adjusted returns to investors, and alignment with federal policies.
Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, a founder of the Building America's Future group that co-sponsored the meeting, said the bank would provide loans as well as "good old-fashioned grants" to finance all kinds of infrastructure, not just transportation.
Rendell said that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who chairs the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, is concerned that such a bank would not benefit small states. But the bank could include a "small state set-aside," Rendell said.
One major question that has divided the Congress, the White House, and various stakeholders is how to fund the bank. The Obama administration has firmly stated its opposition to any tax-based revenue source and instead wants to create near-term funding for transportation through unspecified "reforms" to the current federal highway program. The current legislation for a transportation funding bill does not yet specify the revenue sources.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said at a separate event yesterday that "user fees" such as congestion pricing, instead of taxes, should fund transportation investments.
But former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt disagreed, saying that a gas tax increase is necessary.