Politics

Chamber of Commerce and House Republicans in dust-up over highway bill

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor

The House transportation committee is in a war of words with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other critics over proposed long-term highway and surface transportation funding.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Republican chairman John Mica of Florida, recently released details of a proposal to extend the expired Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).

The Republican plan proposes spending $230 billion over a six-year period for highway and transportation infrastructure, but committee Democrats, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have attacked the plan for not spending enough.

“Unfortunately, while [Rep. Mica’s] legislation tracks the Chamber’s recommendations for reauthorization, it does not in terms of funding,” said Janet Kavinoky, the Chamber’s executive director of transportation and infrastructure, in a press release.

“It is clear the Committee has been constrained by the House-passed budget as the investment levels are unacceptable. Cuts will destroy — rather than support — existing jobs and will not enable creation of the additional jobs needed to put the 16.3% of unemployed workers in the construction industry back to work,” said Kavinoky.

Mica responded to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a letter yesterday.

“Unfortunately the current leadership of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seems unable to recognize the reality that bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund and ignoring long overdue policy reforms are no longer options,” Mica wrote. “This continuing support of bankrupting policies that have depleted the Highway Trust Fund by diverting or placing inflexible or misguided mandates on our limited and precious transportation resources is unproductive and misguided at best.”

Mica and committee Republicans argued a gas tax increase isn’t politically feasible, and other current options, such as a two-year bill or extending the expired law at current funding levels, will lead to the Highway Trust Fund going broke by 2013 or even earlier. (Senate Dems calling for new infrastructure package)

The federal excise tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents and it hasn’t been increased since 1993. Meanwhile, increases in gas mileage have made cars more efficient, leading to decreases in revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. The fund was was completely depleted in 2008, requiring Congress to transfer $8 billion from general revenue.

The most recent multi-year surface transportation bill expired in September of 2009; the program has operated through temporary extensions since then.

The Chamber of Commerce did not return calls seeking comment.