Amid calls for greater investment in infrastructure and a long-term renewal of the surface transportation reauthorization, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the only way to sell a highway bill to his Republican colleagues would be to pare it back and cut waste.
Inhofe, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that anything that is not related to transportation needs to be cut from the bill. He said pet projects like Capitol dome repairs and recreational bike paths make up about 3 percent of the current bill -- an unacceptable number considering that it draws from the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund.
Inhofe suggested at a full committee hearing on transportation investment that the legislation be taken back "to the way it was originally where we had the highway trust fund and people who paid to use our highways." He added, "Confine it to maintenance, construction, bridges, highways, then that would be sellable to the conservative members of the community. It's a hard thing to do, and I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this."
Inhofe did affirm his support for a robust bill -- adding that infrastructure investment was one of the few areas in which he supported government spending -- and said that Republicans, not Democrats, would probably be the ones who would hold it up.
The EPW Committee hearing, which was focused on the economic benefits of transportation investment, is the first in a series of hearings as the committee tries to construct a six-year bill to fund transportation projects. Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she was already working on a replacement to the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, the bill that expired in 2009 and has been continued with stopgap extensions that will run out in March.
"Not only does success in the transportation construction industry improve GDP, commerce in the U.S. benefits every day from transportation investments that shorten travel times, increase productivity, improve travel-time reliability and improve safety," Boxer said. "Failing to invest creates the disruptions that waste money, time and fuel and undermine our competitiveness."
The hearing came a day after President Obama called for more infrastructure investment, including a transportation bill, in his State of the Union address. Committee members applauded Obama's remarks, with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) saying it was a sign that we were "arriving" at a solution for the United States' crumbling infrastructure.
The committee especially highlighted the economic benefits of investing in infrastructure. In an oft-repeated statistic, the Department of Transportation found that every $1 billion of federal money spent on transportation matched by state and local funds was enough to create or maintain almost 35,000 jobs. Witnesses said that would be good news for the construction industry, which has been hit with more than 20.7 percent unemployment, more than double the overall national rate.
"We believe that an investment in transportation infrastructure right now is the single most important public policy initiative that we can take by the federal government to re-energize the national economy," said Raymond Poupore, executive vice president of the National Construction Alliance, which includes unions for carpenters and operating engineers. "Dedicating precious resources immediately to transportation, even in this time of fiscal constraint, makes sense because ... it targets resources to the hardest hit area of the economy."
Susan Martinovich, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, also affirmed the economic need for more investment, saying that federal money was crucial for states. When asked if states could adequately invest in transportation if Congress did not pass a long-term bill, Martinovich warned that she would not start any projects without knowing what happens past March.
Inhofe's comments about trimming the bill captured a good deal of attention at the hearing. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) shot back at Inhofe, saying the bill should fund more than just highways.
"Every dollar that we authorize has to be spent efficiently and appropriately for transportation in this country," Cardin said. "But let's not be afraid to take a look at alternative methods that save money, create jobs and then leave more dollars available for the expensive projects that we know we can build like high-speed rail."
Cardin is pushing for more public transportation and walking and biking projects to be funded through the bill, saying that sometimes roads are not the most efficient or environmentally friendly method of transportation.
However, a spokesman for Inhofe clarified that the senator did not oppose spending on transit or rail. Instead, he is looking to cut the roughly 3 percent in earmarks from the bill that fund non-transportation projects. Inhofe said those started when the highway trust fund was flush with profits, but declining revenue from the federal gas tax has left the trust fund insufficient for the sector's needs.
While Boxer bristled at the idea that bike paths were not responsible transportation spending, she said she was looking to cut waste from the bill and looked forward to working with Inhofe on it. Bill evolving in the House
Meanwhile, Mica yesterday revealed details of the House version of the transportation bill, saying his office was working on a "major transportation rewrite" that would include a variety of financing tools.
"We're going to be dealing with less revenue, but we can make it go further if we have some good leveraging," Mica said.
He said the bill will have four tiers, starting with stabilizing the highway trust fund. Next, Mica said he would explore any appropriated money that has not been spent and find ways to move that along. Third, Mica would explore innovative financing techniques, including public-private partnerships and other federal loans. Finally, he said his bill would look at ways to reduce federal regulation and fast-track projects that could show immediate benefits.
Reporter Paul Quinlan contributed.