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Republican Jobs Proposal Gets Law Wrong, Transportation Department Says

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WASHINGTON -- One of the Republican Party's suggestions for how to create infrastructure jobs without spending a dime is unlikely to produce much of an impact, a Department of Transportation spokesman told The Huffington Post.

The proposal, which has been advanced by top GOP leadership, involves lifting a law that requires states to set aside ten percent of the federal transportation funding they receive for use on transportation repairs. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote a letter to President Obama on Sept. 6, framing the idea as a preferred substitute to Congress appropriating additional money for infrastructure repairs.

We are not opposed to initiatives to repair and improve infrastructure, and believe there are reforms that can be implemented that would improve their effectiveness in a manner that supports economic growth. Current law requires that states set-aside 10 percent of their surface transportation funds for transportation enhancements, which must be used for items such as establishment of transportation museums, education activities for pedestrians and bicyclists, acquisition of scenic easements, historic preservation, operation of historic transportation facilities, etc. While many of the initiatives funded by this mandatory set-aside may be worthy projects, eliminating this required set-aside would allow states to devote more money to the types of infrastructure programs you are advocating without adding to the deficit.

While the suggestion sounds like a win-win -- increasing transportation funds without increasing transportation spending -- there is only one problem. Boehner's letter gets the details of the law wrong.

There is no requirement that states set aside 10 percent of all federal surface transportation funds for purposes of funding Transportation Enhancement projects, a Department of Transportation official confirms. Rather, the law says that they must set aside ten percent of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funding for those purposes.

It's not a minor distinction. The FHWA -– a sub-agency of the Department of Transportation –- was appropriated $927.6 million in fiscal year 2011. The funding for surface transportation during that same period was more than $50 billion.

A Department of Transportation official explained that the Republican proposal would result in about two percent of surface transportation funding being freed up for states to use on their own infrastructure projects. The official adds, for good measure, that the projects funded by the transportation enhancement program are not, as Boehner suggests, a cornucopia of questionably useful, largely scenic items. "It's almost exclusively bicycle and pedestrian projects," the official said.

While the arithmetic of the Republican proposal may be a bit less impressive than it first seemed, that doesn't mean the GOP is going to abandon the idea. A GOP leadership aide told The Huffington Post that Republican leadership was basing its proposal on the knowledge that the money came from FHWA funding, even if Boehner's letter and other party talking points said "surface transportation." Leadership, moreover, still stands by eliminating the ten percent requirement.

“It is legislative malpractice to have the Federal Government mandate to the states how to spend scarce resources, given the infrastructure needs that the President detailed last night," the aide said.