House GOPers Propose Filling Trust Fund With Stimulus Money

As their committee’s leaders butted heads with the Obama administration, a group of Republicans on the House transportation panel proposed to fill the $7 billion hole in the nation’s highway trust fund with unobligated money from the economic stimulus law.

mariodiazballart_kup5.jpgRep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL). Photo: SW Broward GOP

The bill, offered yesterday by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and eight co-sponsors, has almost zero chance of passing in the Democratic-controlled Congress. But its appearance suggests that lawmakers whose sympathies generally lie with Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the House’s transportation chief — who is determined to pass a new federal bill this year — are likely to be diverted by the immediate task of filling the trust fund by August.

In his endorsement of the Diaz-Balart bill, Rep. Tim Johnson (R-IL) underscored the bipartisan appeal of Oberstar’s quest for a new bill. Johnson lamented the business in his home district that would be lost if the Obama administration won its fight for a transportation funding patch:

As a member of the Transportation Committee as well as the Highway
and Transit Subcommittee, I have been gearing up for the
reauthorization for many months. Elected officials from throughout the
District have spent time and energy preparing their plans and projects
with me and my staff in anticipation of this important reauthorization.
Now the administration is telling them to shelve it all.

The
result of this ill-conceived decision will be the loss of jobs,
critical infrastructure and economic development in [my] district
and throughout the nation.

Let’s forget for the moment that House Republicans voted against the stimulus en masse, which casts a dim light on their bid to take advantage of available economic recovery cash for highways. Here’s why the Diaz-Balart proposal could have a significant political downside.

By separating the need to fill the trust fund from a broader debate over transportation reform, it undercuts the efforts of Rep. John Mica (FL), Oberstar’s GOP counterpart, to pass a long-term bill that would tackle the nation’s persistent infrastructure funding problems.

Senate leaders already are tipping towards the Obama administration’s side, aligning with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s call for an 18-month extension of existing law and questioning whether anything can be done other than filling up the highway account.

"I do not oppose on principle the effort to improve federal transportation programs, but we cannot allow debates over these reforms to prevent us from saving the highway trust fund in a timely matter," Patty Murray (D-WA), the Senate’s transportation spending chairwoman, told LaHood yesterday.

Congress is a perennially time-crunched place, where the perception of crisis tends to dictate legislators’ priorities. The more lawmakers who define the transportation crisis as merely the fiscal health of the highway trust fund, the less willingness there will be to tackle the broader issues.

  • kmc

    This is interesting. Because the Republicans have been trying to choke off funding to the Federal Highway Trust Fund since the 1990s. The Bush Administration wanted to replace the FHTF with programs like congestion pricing. Put the burden of funding infrastructure on states and local municipalities instead of the Federal government. It would be a good idea to put money into the FHTF because it is a long term program that will support highways, roads and mass transit throughout the United States. So I wouldn’t knock the Republicans for doing this. It’s just ironic they are doing this because of their position to the FHTF in the past.

  • Ian Hlavacek

    Well, except for the fact that the federal distribution methods for highway dollars and transit dollars are ridiculously out of line. Sure the FHTF ensures that transportation projects are built throughout the US — but those projects are heavily weighted against sustainable transportation. More local control would mean that communities could have a more direct choice between highways and transit, and it’s very possible that we’d see a lot more transit as a result.

    More on the federal funding disparity here: http://www.ctchouston.org/intermodality/2009/03/23/why-the-feds-like-pavement-but-not-rails/

  • kmc

    The problem with having more local control is finding a way to pay for it. I do not support creating any new fees or taxes by the city or state to pay for any new mass transit initiatives. Congestion pricing is very unfair to the businesses (especially the street level businesses) that would be within the CP area. The best thing to happen is for there to be more cooperation and communication between local and Federal government. The reason why the Federal government is so involved in the highway system is because of the military. The military is why the national interstate highway system was built out in the 1950s. You are not going to see the Federal government back out of having control over the highway system. Another thing is the Federal government has access to more money than states. Acually, the Fed prints it. We’ll see what happens. Privatization is still on the table. And since the banks are getting back on their feet, you’ll see them getting back into the game of buying infrastructure.

  • Congestion pricing is very unfair to the businesses (especially the street level businesses) that would be within the CP area.

    No, no, this has been debunked a thousand times during the congestion pricing debate. Do we have to see these uninformed statements repeated over and over again?

  • “It would be a good idea to put money into the FHTF because it is a long term program that will support highways, roads and mass transit throughout the United States.”

    Americans would be better off with much LESS transportation. The average American travels twice as much now as in the 1960s, largely because of sprawl patterns of development, and there is no advantage to putting in all these extra miles on the freeways. We would be better off building more compact metropolitan areas where people don’t have to travel such long distances.

    Clearly, we do need to spend much more on public transportation, because we have neglected it for many decades and because it helps to generate walkable neighborhoods that reduce the need for transportation. But it is a mistake to think that we should to expand transportation infrastructure in general.

    Thus, it is a mistake to assume that we are better off spending more on transportation overall. Even on streetsblog, people seem to assume that it an improvement for the new TEA to spend much more than the TEA it is replacing, regardless of how much of that money goes to transit and how much to freeways. That seems to be the key error in this debate.

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