As chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica of Winter Park is in a powerful position to be helpful to Florida. But the transportation and energy bill expected to come to the House floor this week is wrong for the nation and particularly bad for the state. House leaders announced Tuesday they would allow separate votes on the transportation and energy packages in an attempt to overcome opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, but that won't make the details any more palatable.
The measure would reverse 30 years of bipartisan congressional agreement to dedicate 20 percent of the fuel taxes and other fees in the highway trust fund to mass transit projects. Mica would keep spending for mass transit at the current level — about $8.4 billion per year — for the next five years. But bus and rail services would lose a dedicated revenue stream, and mass transit would have to compete with other programs such as efforts to ease congestion and improve air quality. So while Mica helped steer federal funding to the new SunRail in the Orlando area, his legislation would make it more difficult to secure a similar federal commitment to help build light rail in Tampa Bay.
Directing the trust fund to roads and bridges consigns the nation and the fourth-largest state to more road congestion, pollution and reliance on fossil fuels. It is a backward strategy in an era of rising gas prices and continued volatility in overseas oil-producing states. There also is no guarantee Congress would honor the commitment to mass transit over the next five years. In Hillsborough and Pinellas, where the bus systems are seeing record ridership — more than 13 million each last year — officials fear the funding change will undermine transit service and the local jobs that depend on it.
The bill also would weaken environmental protections. The federal government would be forced to expedite permitting for highway and bridge projects, and could delegate that job to the states. That would be especially risky in Florida, where Scott and the Republican-led Legislature are using the loss of tax revenue from the recession as political cover to cut the jobs of regulators and dismantle planning, growth and water management agencies. The bill also provides a fast-track for environmental reviews; the president would have 30 days to deny a project or it would go ahead. And fast-track approval would not be subject to court review.
A companion bill that will be part of the final legislation would open more areas to offshore oil drilling — including the eastern Gulf of Mexico — under the guise of raising money to meet the nation's transit needs. The bill opens 4.4 million acres in the central gulf to new exploration. And while it would extend a 2006 congressional compromise that keeps drilling 234 miles from Tampa Bay and 125 miles south of the Panhandle through 2022, the measure would allow lease sales in the eastern gulf of up to 450 square miles in size every year for the next three years. The administration could continue to deny leases in the eastern gulf that posed a safety conflict with ongoing military training there.
Mica's bill is a hodgepodge of bad policies. And he is tone-deaf to put drilling on the table while Florida and the gulf states are still struggling to recover from the multibillion-dollar damage from the BP oil spill, the nation's worst environmental disaster. The House needs a real starting point on transportation that can get the nation and its economy moving again. This certainly isn't it.