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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

New Transportation Bill Proposes Big Changes

Air Date: Week of February 3, 2012

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Congressman John Mica(FL-R)(in shirt sleeves) chairs the House Transportation Committee.(Courtesy of the House Transportation Committee)

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has proposed a sweeping, new transportation bill. The legislation would encourage private companies to build their own toll roads and pay for infrastructure with money from oil companies. The author of the 800 page-long bill, Congressmen John Mica, highlights some of the bill’s biggest proposals with host Bruce Gellerman.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: The bill he railed against was written by Congressman John Mica. The Florida Republican is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. His proposed legislation is 846 pages long and projects spending 260 billion dollars over the next five years. Congressman, welcome to Living on Earth!

MICA: Good to be with you. Good to talk about transportation!

GELLERMAN: Well, we just spoke with Congressman Blumenauer, and he wants to know why you want to zero out funding for bicycles and walking.

MICA: (Laughs.) Well, we aren’t doing that in the bill. What we are doing is eliminating a mandate for what’s called ‘enhancements,’ and actually devolving to states so that local communities and states don’t have to come to Washington and to ask for the money. So we think there will be even less red tape and states can do more or less according to what they desire.

GELLERMAN: So, if a state wants to build more bike paths they can, if they don't want to build any, they don't have to.

MICA: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I’m a strong supporter of the bike trail program. We’ve had a ten percent set aside of highway money for enhancements, and it went, actually, beyond just bike trails, it could be used for anything, for plantings, for whatever’s considered an enhancement. So sometimes bike trails were actually short-changed in the process, and people had to come to Washington on bended knees.

GELLERMAN: Well, most of the money in your bill would go to highways. It would link federal money for roads with drilling for oil. How does that work?

MICA: Well, right now you pay 18.4 cents per gallon, that comes into the federal highway trust fund - trucks pay more with diesel fuel - that goes into the trust fund and that’s used to support the national interstate system. Unfortunately, we’ve been spending in the neighborhood of 50 billion and we take in about 35 billion, so we’re short. And President Obama has opposed increasing the gas tax, Republicans are opposed to that - so you have to have another source of revenue.

So what the Republican leadership has agreed to, and Republicans, is let’s enhance some of our own energy production, and from actually the point of production, we get royalties and other fees that are set now, we’ll put that into the trust fund to make up the balance.

GELLERMAN: So, the revenue stream would be coming from drilling for oil- the fees that the companies would pay.

MICA: Yes, new energy, which does two things: it does allow more domestic production, so we’d become less dependant, we’ll have more supply, that should bring the cost down for consumers. So, we think it’s a win-win. Eventually, we’ll have to probably do away with the gasoline tax because we have the issue of electric cars who pay no fee, we’ve got gas cars, we’ve got fuel-cell cars coming on line. And the trust fund is actually depleting because cars are going further and paying less - that’s a problem.

GELLERMAN: So, would you want drilling off the coast of Florida, your state?

MICA: Well, it depends. I’ve always been a strong advocate of going after energy. We have an incredible natural gas supply off of Florida and I think you can relatively safely go after it, but you have to be concerned. If you’re doing deepwater drilling, you can’t issue a permit, like the Obama Administration did, without having the proper checks, without having the proper monitoring by inspectors.

GELLERMAN: But your bill calls for environmental streamlining, expediting permits by limiting environmental impact reports.

MICA: Well, first of all, that’s not correct. We don't limit any of the current environmental standards. What we do is two things: first, if you have an extensive period of time for the review, we try to consolidate that, so something that might have taken a year, we try to get it done in six months.

But some of these studies and reports go on forever, so we consolidate the amount of time. Again, not changing any requirements or lowering any standards, what we’re just trying to do is get a quicker review process, because almost all of these projects are projects that are in existing footprints. Now for a project that is going through the wilderness or some new uncharted area, it may take longer.

GELLERMAN: One section of your bill calls for private participation in public transportation. I’m reading it, maybe I’ve got this wrong, but you’d allow companies to build private express lanes attached to public highways.

MICA: Absolutely. And what we did in the bill is, we have thousands of miles of interstate and we said - you cannot toll any existing free lanes on the interstate, but what you can do is take some of that existing right-of-way, some of them have inside safety lanes, that can be converted with smaller safety lanes, but be just as safe, and you can turn that into a toll road, again keeping the free lanes free.

And the private sector can build these pretty quickly, they’re a lot more efficient than the public sector and they can return money to the state and to the project. So the free lane goes faster, and people who can pay get on the new lanes and they’re paying for that new capacity - pretty fair, isn’t it?

GELLERMAN: Well, philosophically, I’m wondering - you’re creating a two class society.

MICA: Absolutely not. You’re helping those that can’t pay, and allowing them to get to work and have their roads less congested, and you’re finding a way for those that can pay a little bit more to help pay for that. So we think it’s the most equitable way.

GELLERMAN: Last question.


Amtrak would face a 25% cut in Federal subsidies. (Photo: Wikipedia)

MICA: Yeah?

GELLERMAN: Am I reading your bill correctly, that you’re calling for federal funding for Amtrak to be cut by 25 percent?

MICA: Well, we are making some cutbacks. There have been huge increases on Amtrak. In addition, the administration and in the various stimulus bill, gave them another three billion dollars over a three-year period. If you add all this together, we’re subsidizing every single ticket on Amtrak close to 100 dollars. So we think that we shouldn’t be spending that much, and I’ve actually called for the private sector to start coming in to look at operating some of these lines because they can provide more efficient service, do it more cost effectively - they do it cheaper.

GELLERMAN: So privatize rail traffic.

MICA: Yes, I think there are good opportunities for that where it makes sense. We still want to support a national system, but the private sector can do some remarkable things if they’re given an opportunity to fairly compete. You don’t like these answers, but that’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). John Mica is Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Congressman Mica, thank you very much.

MICA: Great to be with you!

GELLERMAN: We checked Congressman Mica’s figures on Amtrak's subsidies. The issue is contentious…controversial and not easily answered. The statistics are old, and many variables aren’t taken into account, but according to the Department of Transportation, on a per passenger mile basis - back in 2002, the federal government subsidized rail traffic 21 cents a mile, public transit 16 cents and commercial planes got a penny.

 

Links

Summary of the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act”

 

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