WASHINGTON — The House Transportation Committee chairman said Thursday he wants bond provisions in a bill he plans to introduce that would fund highway and transit programs for six years.
In a presentation to reporters and the public in the committee's hearing room, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said, "I will ask for some bonding" from the House Ways and Means Committee, which controls the revenue portions of all House bills.
But, he added, "it may not resemble Build America Bonds, where there were problems."
Mica declined to be more specific, citing an earlier incident when he expressed interest in reviving the BAB program for transportation projects.
"That was the day I roiled the bond market and I don't want to do that again," he said.
The chairman's bill would make deep cuts in federal aid to states and localities for their transportation projects. The House has passed a rule that says the committee can only authorize spending within the limits of the Highway Trust Fund.
So Mica is proposing a $230 billion bill, $35 billion a year for the next six years. The $35 billion is 30% less than current spending and 20% less than in the last long-term transportation bill, which expired in 2009.
Congress has made higher spending possible by adding $35 billion from general funds to the trust fund over the last three years. House Republicans are refusing to do that again and neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to increase the gasoline tax to boost trust fund revenues.
Transportation Committee Democrats slammed Mica's proposal. "The bill is best described as the Republican road to ruin," the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, said during a later news conference. "It takes our nation in the wrong direction — backwards instead of forwards."
The official $35 billion isn't a true representation of the aid to states and cities because of other parts of the bill, Mica contended. "We think we can take that $35 billion and I believe I've done some back-of-the-envelope calculations and we can double that value."
Expanding the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program to $1 billion a year would be one of those value boosters. State infrastructure banks would be another.
Mica had Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, talk by phone to those in the hearing room during his briefing. The mayor endorsed the proposals. "These are the kinds of things that leverage money when there's not a whole lot of it," he said.
The $6 billion dedicated to TIFIA over the six-year period would produce $60 billion in low-interest loans to fund at least $120 billion in transportation projects, according to the plan. Recipients would also have more flexibility in using their TIFIA money.
States could raise the percentage of federal highway money dedicated to their infrastructure banks to 15% from 10%. They could not impose tolls on existing Interstate highways but could add new toll lanes.
The bill would streamline federal environmental and highway agency reviews, aiming to cut the approval process time in half. Reviews could run concurrently rather than consecutively.
Committee Republicans also claimed the six-year length of the bill would also help states financially, compared to the two-year proposal expected to be introduced in the Senate. John Njord, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, offered a telephone endorsement for Mica's longer bill. "We need a six-year bill so we can have certainty for long-term projects," Njord said.
But Democrats aren't buying the expanded value argument. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon said people may talk about doing more with less, "but at the end of the day, with less you get less."
Mica said staff are still working on legislative language and that he does not know when the bill might be introduced.