US needs long-term transportation bill to create jobs, stimulate economy

Congress is faced with a choice in adopting a responsible, long-term transportation bill.

The Obama administration has proposed $476 billion over six years, or an average of $79 billion annually, and finances new spending with a smoke-and-mirrors drawdown from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Senate’s two-year bill proposes spending $109 billion, or $54.5 billion per year. This option depletes the highway trust fund in a matter of months and leaves major infrastructure improvements and employment opportunities behind.

The House proposal, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, provides significant federal program reforms, project streamlining and more authority to states. This bill sends $260 billion over five years, or $52 billion per year, back to the states to improve our infrastructure.

Members of Congress must remember that voters sent us to Washington for a specific, basic purpose — to ensure that our government acts as a wise, responsible steward of their hard-earned taxes. They also want Congress to adopt measures that will expand employment and economic opportunities. This makes the House bill the clear choice for our nation.

This initiative will responsibly return transportation dollars to the state and local levels to help create and sustain good jobs, particularly in the hard-hit construction industry, rebuilding our deteriorating roads and bridges. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and House leaders are working together to secure support for this important measure that will help spur our economy, increase energy independence and lower energy costs for consumers — without deficit spending.

No other measure before this Congress can more positively affect our economy.

The House proposal also ensures a more responsible use of taxpayers’ money. Achieving this goal requires a long-term bill that does not borrow and provides multiyear stability for major project planning.

The Senate’s 18-month proposal limits states to smaller projects, drives the nation’s highway and transit programs to a dead end and will force General Fund bailouts in the coming months to keep the highway trust fund solvent.

Furthermore, the House bill is the most significant reform of transportation programs since the interstate highway system was established in 1956.

The interstate system was created with a small core of programs for its ongoing maintenance. More than 50 years later, the number of programs has mushroomed to more than 130. Today, we have a massive bureaucracy of programs and mandates for spending Americans’ gas taxes on a multitude of project types. In past years of plush highway trust fund balances, Congress has funded parking garages, paths, flowers, ballparks, museums and other non-federal responsibilities.

Unfortunately, we’ve allowed our critical road-and-bridge infrastructure to decay, and now available transportation dollars are scarce. Streamlining our federal transportation bureaucracy is long overdue. While not perfect, the House bill is a responsible and reasonable approach to getting us out of the ditch and on the road to actually repairing and maintaining our nation’s aging infrastructure.

The increase in federal transportation program requirements over the years has also eroded the states’ ability to decide which of their diverse needs they need to address.

Washington is too intrusive, and we need to get Big Brother out of the states’ way in making important transportation projects a reality.

Proposed reforms provide states more authority to direct transportation funding to projects they choose. The bill not only takes decision-making out of the hands of

Washington bureaucrats, it sends more net federal tax dollars back to states with less costly federal overhead and more flexibility.

Another key reform in this bill is that it contains no earmarks, a clear difference compared to previous transportation bills. The last long-term law contained more than 6,300 earmarks.

Even when funding is available, countless federal mandates have led to a project-approval process that bogs down infrastructure improvements. “Shovel-ready” has become a national joke because of federal red tape. Completing projects can take 15 years, while construction costs escalate, safety improvements lag and job creation is delayed.

The House proposal condenses the project-review process to half the time, cuts red tape, allows concurrent agency reviews of projects, sets hard approval deadlines and delegates more authority to states.

It is always difficult to significantly reform the way Washington does business, but the House’s responsible, long-term transportation-reform proposal will signal that we will not settle for the status quo and business as usual. This measure is the only choice that will demonstrate to taxpayers that Congress has heard their calls for real job creation, reform and better — not bigger — government.

Mica is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.