- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 5, 2012

A House Republican’s transportation bill aimed at dealing with the nation’s crumbling road, bridge and rail systems has been attacked not only by Democrats but some conservatives and government watchdogs who say it amounts to another government stimulus package.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica last week introduced the $260 billion measure to fund federal highway, surface transit and transportation safety programs for five years at levels he touted are consistent with current funding.

“No other bill this Congress will create jobs, lower energy costs or improve our deteriorating infrastructure as effectively as this legislation,” the Florida Republican said on Friday after his committee voted to approve the bill and send it to the full House for consideration.

But the conservative anti-spending group Club for Growth has denounced the bill, calling it a “remarkably bloated and inefficient piece of legislation” and has urged lawmakers to vote against it.

“Simply put, this is a massive 846-page bill that doesn’t cut any spending at all,” said a statement from the group. “It spends at least $30 billion more by supplementing fuel taxes with additional revenue from other sources.”

Club for Growth, which has pushed for greater state control of highway projects and an end or significant reduction of the federal gas tax, says the bill does neither.

The group said the measure would bring a “slowing down (of) reform agenda so that business-as-usual can resume sometime in the near future when nobody is looking.”

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan government watchdog, said a Republican plan to pay for spending projects in the bill with future royalties from the development of oil shale on public lands and offshore drilling “is nothing more than a budget gimmick that could exacerbate future budget deficits.”

“The royalty collection system is broken,” said a statement from the group. “It must be fixed before taxpayers can feel confident they are getting a fair return for the resources they own.”

Environmental and transportation safety groups have lashed out at the measure on several fronts, including its call for changes in the way transportation projects must comply with environmental regulations and provisions that could lead to increased oil drilling offshore and in Alaska’s Arctic wildlife refuge.

The measure also would slash gas tax subsidies for local transit programs such as buses, subways and commuter rail lines, and Amtrak.

“This bill is loaded with giveaways to road builders, shortchanging transit, anyone who walks or bikes, as well as public health and the environment,” Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Mr. Mica’s bill did generate support from some conservative allies and transportation industry groups, including the American Trucking Associations and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports the measure, saying it encourages private-sector investment by eliminating many mandates, consolidating programs and cutting significant red tape.

The Americans for Tax Reform also applauded the bill, saying that “new spending on transit and pet projects does little to yield economic prosperity.”

Transportation spending bills typically are among the most nonpartisan on Capitol Hill, as Democrats and Republicans alike pack such measures with pet spending projects. But Democrats bitterly have opposed this year’s version, which is free of earmarks, complaining it was crafted without their input.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the House transportation panel, also said the bill flat-lines highway funding at a time when greater investment is needed to upgrade the nation’s aging road systems.

“It signals a retreat from creating greater transportation opportunities by short-changing transportation funding under highway, and transit programs and Amtrak,” he said.

The measure is expected to hit the full House floor for a vote later this month. But while it may pass the GOP-control House, it has little if any chance of passing in the Democrat-run Senate.

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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