Monday, September 22, 2008


September 22, 2008

Republican congressman hopes candidate will support highway reauthorization bill

With transportation spending often in the cross hairs of Sen. John McCain’s trumpeted fiscal conservatism, asking the Republican presidential nominee to endorse $1.5 trillion in the next highway reauthorization bill might be an uphill battle.

Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., hoped to gain an audience with McCain at the Republican National Convention, last month, but the presidential nominee apparently didn’t have time.

“We’re probably not high on their priority list,” a staffer for Mica said.

Still, Mica, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, believes if he can get to McCain he will be able to convince him to support his transportation package.

“I think John McCain, if we lay out the type of pieces and projects that are in the national interest, he will support it,” Mica said.

“My dealing with John McCain is, if you can prove your case to John and show it’s a well thought-out plan … John will buy off on it,” Mica said. “The Bush administration was a bit myopic unfortunately and I think they adopted one philosophy” using market-driven approaches to solve traffic congestion.

Mica’s proposal is among several coming out of the woodwork as Congress begins gearing up for the next highway reauthorization bill, legislation that will set policy and funding levels for the next several years. The current $286 billion highway bill expires in September 2009.

Mica has long been calling for a national transportation plan, but exact details of what he has in mind for the next highway bill appear to still be in the works.

What is known is that Mica plans to include an emphasis on freight transportation, as well as passenger rail, highways and airports, with special emphasis on intermodal transportation, a plan that could spell bad news for the trucking industry.

“It needs to be intermodal in nature,” he said. “It needs to be interconnected, and then we will look at the options moving more by freight rail, less on highways, which will save us money on infrastructure and be better for the environment. Heavy truck traffic on the highways in fact diminishes the life and (increases) the maintenance costs and upkeeps.”

The cost of the legislation, $1.5 trillion, is an amount Mica said comes from an American Society of Civil Engineer five-year infrastructure-needs estimate. That figure, however, also includes billions for schools, wastewater facilities and other needs not related to transportation.

Broken into thirds, the legislation would be financed using federal revenue, bonds and public-private partnerships — a method that has drawn skepticism from shippers and other highway users, as well many congressional Democrats.

That dispute would most likely need to be worked out if the legislation is to proceed in a bipartisan fashion and get Rep. James L. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on board.

“It really remains to be seen how much of what Mica’s proposing Oberstar can support,” said Jim Berard, Oberstar’s spokesman. “I think Oberstar is not ready to buy into privatization of federal assets, but at the same time we have to figure out how to get the money to meet the needs that we have.”

Others believe a McCain presidency would lead to a greater role in private sector development in infrastructure.

“I know that Sen. McCain has been very supportive of innovative ways of building infrastructure, including empowering the private sector,” George Pataki, the former governor of New York, told the National Journal.

Some in the transportation community have expressed concern about the presidential candidate’s position on transportation spending, an issue that his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has been much more vocal about.

“I do think he will have to do a very serious job of convincing McCain what he is proposing is different from the types of bills McCain has voted against and even tried to hold up in the past,” said Gregory Cohen, president and chief executive of the American Highways Users Alliance.

Still, with the deadline for the next highway bill approaching, Mica is bound to have some competition.

Oberstar has said the next highway bill will include a healthy focus on freight and goods movement. And on the other side of the Hill, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said she was “leading the effort to develop the new transportation bill.”

For Boxer, priorities include port and other freight-related transportation projects, as well as hammering down on pollution, reducing congestion, and finding funding alternatives for the Highway Trust Fund.

“The next transportation bill provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at these programs and make the changes necessary to ensure our transportation system will meet the nation’s needs in the coming years,” Boxer said in a statement.

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