Highway High Jinks

Dan Holler
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Posted: Nov 28, 2011 12:01 AM

The Golden Gate Bridge is an ironic American structure. It was finished in just four years and came in $1.3 million under budget. Earlier this month, California Senator Dianne Feinstein acknowledged that could not happen today: “…it would take a hundred years to do it with all the permits we need.” It was a rare moment of candor from a California Democrat, acknowledging environmental and labor regulations make it hard to build things in America.

She actually sounded a lot like Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels – a Republican – who made a similar point at The Heritage Foundation in September. According to Mr. Daniels, Indiana “can build [infrastructure projects] in at least a third less time and sometimes half the money when we do it ourselves.” He also noted that Indiana could build its own bike trails for just $250,000 per mile, whereas it costs $1,000,000 per mile when federal money is involved because of all the accompanying red tape.

If lawmakers are looking for bipartisanship, they should start right here, where there is an actual agreement. Unfortunately, far too many in Washington are part of the Establishment and have no desire to tackle the regulatory hurdles and labor rules that increase costs, delay timelines and destroy jobs.

Just look at the stunt that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pulled last month. He forced a political show vote on $60 billion in stimulus-style infrastructure spending. We’ve been down this road before, and we all remember the taxpayer-funded highway signs: this nightmarish traffic jam was brought to you by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of Stimulus 1.0, every single Republican Senator voted against Reid’s political gimmick. Instead, they proposed a 2-year reauthorization of the highway bill that would have gotten at some of the real hurdles toward building roads and producing necessary raw materials, like concrete. Aside from their inability to get funding to appropriate levels in the proposal, it was a good start.

And to their credit, House Republicans were thinking even bigger things earlier this year. In the budget put forth by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), funding would have stayed in line with revenues coming into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which is paid for by federal gasoline taxes. The message was clear: no more transportation bailouts.

According to those familiar with negotiations, House Transportation Chairman John Mica (R-FL) began to chart a course to live within those guidelines and enact serious reforms. Over the next six years, the HTF is projected to take in about $230 billion, well below the previous $286 billion six-year authorization. Conservatives were excited, and the transportation industry was nervous their federal gravy train could be ending.

Unfortunately, key House Republicans are not only edging away from big, bold reforms, but also the funding levels enshrined in the House-passed Ryan budget. They are now exploring a plan that marries increased highway funding with increased revenues from energy exploration. Decoupling highway funding from gas tax revenue is an astounding break from conservative orthodoxy. One beltway publication dubbed it to be “fuzzy math.”

Fuzzy math abounds in Washington though, as the two sides cannot even agree on what “current levels” are for funding purposes.

Chairman Mica wants to increase the previous six-year funding level of $286 billion by as much as possible. But that will not be enough for California’s other Democrat Senator, Barbara Boxer, who believes “current levels” total is more like $339 billion for the next six years. House Republicans are eyeing $9.3 billion per year, on average, above current revenue projections and Democrats are eyeing an additional $8.8 billion per year difference, on top of that.

It’s starting to sound like the so-called “super committee” again!

As we’ve seen, finding common ground with the proponents of the stimulus, cap-and-trade and Obamacare has been all but impossible. Instead of seeking a false compromise that increases the size of government, House Republicans should recommit to their bold ideas from earlier this year.

Fortunately, some conservatives in Congress are going bold, introducing a bill that allows states to opt out of the federal highway funding bureaucracy and another that devolves the system entirely back to the states. This is exactly the direction we need to go!