Highway bill still stuck in neutral

Highway bill still stuck in neutral

A big change is taking place in Washington, D.C., and it could have a significant impact on transportation and the trucking industry in this country.

A big change is taking place in Washington, D.C., and it could have a significant impact on transportation and the trucking industry in this country. As Congress returns to work after the holiday recess, it will find a House of Representatives under Republican control, and that includes the all-important Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL) has taken over the chair of the committee from Democrat James Oberstar, who lost his reelection bid. With the highway reauthorization bill still stalled more than a year after expiring in September 2009, Mica’s ascension to the chairmanship could change the way that final bill will look.

“You’ll see a pretty significant shift from Chairman Oberstar to Mica,” Mary Phillips, senior vice president of legislative affairs for the American Trucking Assns., told Fleet Owner. “Mica has said he does not want a fuel-tax increase and that he wants to fund everything.”

Consistent with many current Republicans, Mica believes that for every dollar spent, there needs to be a funding mechanism in place. While Mica does not support a fuel-tax increase, he does support expanded tolling and is in favor of public-private partnerships, Phillips said. According to Phillips, Mica is not in favor of adding tolls to current roads, but if new lanes, such as a truck-only lane, or new roads were added, he does support adding tolls in that situation. Oberstar’s proposed highway bill was reliant on increasing the fuel tax for funding while Mica will be looking for other revenue sources.

“It will definitely slow it down because I think John Mica intends to write his own bill,” said Brian Deery, senior director of highway and transportation for the Associated General Contractors of America. “There were a lot of things in there he didn’t like.”

Deery believes a new bill will be smaller and more focused on transportation infrastructure projects. It also likely will leave control over funds to state departments of transportation, he said. “The Oberstar bill would have taken away a lot of [authority] from the state departments and given it to the federal or local governments,” Deery said, adding that contractors would have been scrambling to develop new relationships with officials with whom they are not used to working.

How quickly the highway bill moves forward is a guessing game, though.

“It’s very hard to say what will happen,” Phillips said. “Mr. Mica wants to move out quickly, as we understand, because once we get past August, we start getting into a presidential cycle.”

The current highway bill has been extended several times. Just before the Christmas recess, the House of Representatives passed a Continuing Resolution that would have extended the reauthorization bill until September 2011. The Senate, though, passed a shorter version, providing funding until March 4, 2011.

The Republicans do have a number of priorities when it comes to a new bill, one of which is stabilizing the Highway Trust Fund. The fund relies on the federal gas tax, but as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient in recent years, there simply has not been enough money in the fund to cover its expenses.

Better leveraging of resources and turning some control for projects over to states is another proposal, as is cutting the red tape to get projects from the proposal stage to the ribbon-cutting stage quicker. According to Deery, the average infrastructure project takes 14 years to complete. “Mica is very focused on delivering projects quickly,” Deery said. Called the 437-day plan, the proposal uses as an example the amount of time it took to rebuild the I-35 Mississippi River Bridge in Minnesota that collapsed in 2007. That bridge was rebuilt in just over a year’s time.

Mica is also in favor of creating a National Strategic Transportation Plan that will allow the federal government to establish a long-term strategic vision for the transportation system.

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