House sees far smaller transport bill than Obama

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 22, 2011 8:03 PM
House sees far smaller transport bill than Obama

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans looking to hold down federal spending are considering a transportation budget blueprint that would, at a minimum, be less than half the size of the plan advanced by the White House.

In fact, the base-line figure of under $240 billion would fall below what Congress approved in similar legislation five years ago for road, bridge and transit upgrades, according to sources with knowledge of the six-year plan.

The bill for budgeting transportation priorities in the states is just beginning to take shape within the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Legislation is not expected to emerge for more than a month and the figures could change.

Any initial low-ball price tag, however, is likely to further rankle Democrats. They want robust a transportation construction spending package that they can sell to voters as a jobs bill.

But Democrats, especially in the Senate, are already frustrated with the Obama administration's reluctance to say how it would pay for its ambitious, $556 billion initiative proposed to Congress in February.

President Barack Obama's plan includes $53 billion for high-speed rail and $50 billion in one-time, extra spending for the fiscal year beginning October 1. Congressional Republicans looking to chop federal spending to bring down deficits do not support either idea.

The working House figure is in line with amounts projected for a federal trust account dedicated to transportation projects and funded by gasoline tax receipts.

An analysis by a trade group representing state highway and transportation officials estimates $190 billion in trust fund receipts will be available for highway spending and $55 billion for transit between 2012-17.

Rep. John Mica, the Transportation Committee chairman, also is looking at whether Congress can claw back unspent funds in Transportation Department accounts to help pay for infrastructure projects.

But whether that money becomes available to supplement trust fund revenue is uncertain.

In addition, other members want to revive a popular infrastructure financing program from the 2009 economic stimulus plan that expired at the end of last year. Under that program, states issued taxable bonds for capital works projects that provided hefty federal rebates of some interest costs.

It is also unclear how much room the House bill will make for private investment.

The Democratic-led Senate is working on a proposal that will create an infrastructure bank to provide low-interest loans and loan guarantees for projects that generate revenue, like toll roads, in order to attract private capital.

Mica's committee is conducting hearings on the bill. In recent interviews, the Florida Republican would not commit to specific figures but said spending would be tight unless new sources of revenues could be found.

(Editing by Richard Chang)