House and Senate present competing transport bills

California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, has proposed a two-year, $109bn transport bill to replace current legislation expiring on 30 September, while House Republicans led by John Mica (right) are suggesting a six-year, $230bn plan.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair John Mica, a Florida Republican, has outlined a six-year, $230 billion reauthorisation of US surface transportation legislation.

If passed, the proposed reauthorisation would “allow the dramatic expansion of public-private partnerships”, Mica said in a public briefing yesterday. He suggested “streamlining” regulatory processes and shortening the time needed for environmental approvals as ways to draw private sector investment to US infrastructure projects.

Current surface transportation legislation expired in September 2009, and has been propped up by short-term extensions since then. The most recent extension will expire on 30 September 2011.

The House reauthorisation bill that Mica described differs widely from the proposal outlined by California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who presented a two-year, $109 billion plan for transportation reauthorisation earlier this week.

In May, Boxer said the Senate was close to unveiling a six-year, $339.2 billion reauthorisation plan, but added that a two-year proposal was “in the mix” due to fiscal constraints.

“I would wish for a six-year bill, but we think this is the one we have a better chance at,” Boxer said in a press conference this week.

But Mica argued that a two-year proposal at a higher annual spending level is “a recipe for bankruptcy of the [Highway] Trust Fund and close-down of long-term projects across the country”. Mica said a two-year proposal would not provide state transportation agencies with the stable federal funding needed to pursue large-scale, long-term construction projects.

Mica added that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee cannot propose a programme that requires funding beyond the amount available from the Highway Trust Fund, which he said provides about $35 billion for transportation spending annually.

Both the House and Senate proposals will include $1 billion in annual funding for the popular federal TIFIA credit programme, which provides long-term, low-cost loans to infrastructure projects under the 1998 Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The programme’s current annual funding level of $122 million has been heavily oversubscribed.

Mica said his recently proposed plan to allow the private sector to bid on services currently run by national passenger rail carrier Amtrak is not included as part of the proposed six-year reauthorisation legislation. But the bill will remove “current barriers that prevent the private sector from offering public transportation services,” according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee website.

Mica said the House expects to begin hearings on the reauthorisation as early as next week. Boxer said the Environment and Public Works committee should finish drafting the legislation within the next few weeks.