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Republican Transportation Vision: More Highways, Funded By Drilling

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Speaker John Boehner and Rep. John Mica unveil the House transportation bill.
Speaker John Boehner and Rep. John Mica unveil the House transportation bill.

House Transportation Chair John Mica introduced Americans to the GOP vision for transportation on Tuesday -- more highways and more toll roads. To pay for it all, there would more offshore drilling. Democrats and environmentalists, predictably, weren't impressed.

The five-year, $260 billion American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act would rewrite the nation's transportation legislation, set to expire on March 31. The bill would expand the interstate highway system by building more toll roads.

"This bill will put Americans back to work rebuilding our roads and bridges and developing new sources of low-cost energy," Mica said in a statement released by his committee. "This legislation may be the most important jobs measure to pass Congress this year."

Environmentalists, meanwhile, were skeptical it could get through the Senate. Anna Gowan of the anti-drilling group Oceana called the idea a "non-starter."

"Putting offshore drilling into a bill to put more cars on the road seems like a doubly bad idea," Gowan said.

The suggestion that offshore drilling should pay for infrastructure is an idea that even Mica's fellow Republicans have questioned. The federal highway trust fund faces a $12 billion gap over the next two years, and it's highly unlikely that new wells could come anywhere close to bringing in that much tax revenue. Money for roads has also traditionally been linked to gas tax revenues under a so called "user pays, user benefits" system.

Sen. James Inofe (R.-Okla.) suggested in a statement in November that drilling fees, dependent on the stop-and-go whims of oil companies, are a fanciful idea to make up the increasing shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.

"While Speaker [John] Boehner's idea may be a long-term revenue source for transportation infrastructure," Inhofe said, "we need to focus on the immediate problem of how we will fund a multi-year highway bill."

Nevertheless House Republicans, led by Boehner, are pushing ahead. They may even try to pay for the transportation bill by adding a provision that would approve the much-disputed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

In addition to the drilling, other provisions sure to anger the Democratic-controlled Senate include a proposal to slash Amtrak subsidies by 25 percent, and another to do away with federal funds for bicycling and pedestrian transportation.

Mass transit advocates will be watching the bill's progress through the House Ways and Means Committee, where representatives will decide how to actually pay for it. "By putting public transportation funding in an account pejoratively labeled the 'Alternative Transportation Account,' many worry that House Republicans intend to raid the Mass Transit Account for highway use," said a Senate transportation aide. "That would gut the transit program and would be a costly mistake."

If the bill passes the House, it would need to be reconciled with another transportation bill working its way through the Senate. The Senate bill is much shorter in scope, covering only the next two years.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a transportation conference last week he doesn't think a new transportation bill will get passed this year (the alternative would be to simply extend the existing bill).

"Given the politics, the number of days that remain, the differences between what the Senate and House are looking at -- I think it's very unlikely we will have a surface transportation bill during this year of Congress," LaHood said, according to the news website Transportation Nation.

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