House should fix partisan potholes and pass transit bill

Published March 20, 2012

With new signs every week that the recovery is taking hold, Congress should be relishing the chance to pass a transportation bill. But House Republicans are more keen to continue waging ideological wars in the run-up to elections than to bring some much-needed relief to America's commuters and to workers hard hit in the construction industry. The House should follow the Senate's lead and pass a transportation bill without further delay.

House Speaker John Boehner has only his caucus to blame for the collapse of a wide-ranging transportation bill last month. Its call to end dedicated funding for mass transit and for a vast expansion of domestic offshore oil drilling was more of the same red meat that party extremists have come to lard on every major piece of legislation. The Senate showed the strong bipartisan appeal of fixing up the nation's roads and putting people to work in passing the legislation 74-22. Now House leaders are looking for an alternative that would pass with both hard-right House members and Senate moderates.

The Senate's $109 billion bill would largely keep funding for highway and transit projects at current levels for the next two years. It would free up financing for major transportation works and give states more flexibility to address their most pressing transportation needs. The bill consolidates some programs and provides fast-track permitting in certain cases. The measure is more practical than ambitious, but it provides continuity to the states by extending funding for transportation for two years. The current program will otherwise expire March 31.

House Republicans say the Senate bill does not address the fundamental problem of relying on waning receipts from federal gas tax revenues to finance the nation's transit needs. That critique would be more valid if Republicans were offering up alternatives, but they are not. Higher taxes would not pass this year anyway. The Senate bill at least buys time to get beyond this year's elections, setting the stage for a much calmer debate on fair and reliable sources for transportation funding. And the bill provides communities and contractors with the certainty they need to finance and complete construction projects that can be years in the making. An analysis by the office of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, found that Florida would receive an increase of $23 million under the Senate's bill, as one of 15 states to fare better by reauthorizing the highway program.

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, said Tuesday that the House would consider a short-term extension to the current highway funding bill rather than take up the Senate legislation. House leaders need to start leading on an issue of vital national importance. Clogged transportation systems are costing this nation dearly in wasted energy, lost productivity and the competitiveness of entire communities. States cannot look ahead when Congress manages the nation's infrastructure on a short-term basis. The Senate bill is a reasonable starting point; it might also be one of the very few achievements Congress could take home in this election year. Kicking the can down the road may spare House Republicans from having to reach across the aisle, but it certainly wouldn't bolster the economic recovery.