The nation's transportation infrastructure is in dire need of repair, says House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, but committing to years of robust spending on anything is a tough sell as a new wave of austerity hits Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mica will share some of his vision and priorities with committee members who will meet for the first time in Washington. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address Tuesday, called on Congress to "redouble" efforts to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure, even as it cuts elsewhere.
On Thursday, the committee will hold a field hearing in New York at Grand Central Station, where Mr. Mica—a critic of the Obama administration's broad disbursement of high-speed rail stimulus funds—will discuss why he thinks it makes the most sense to concentrate the funding to establish true high-speed service in a few corridors, including the Northeast.
Mr. Mica inherited one of Congress's biggest pieces of unfinished business when he assumed his chairmanship this month—crafting a successor to the $286.4 billion bill that funded transportation infrastructure spending between 2005 and 2009. Mr. Mica wants a six-year bill, funded without raising the federal gas tax consumers pay at the pump.
Republican leaders said after winning control of the House that they would pare down big, multiyear spending bills. Mr. Mica, a 10-term Florida Republican, wants to make an exception for roads, railways, bridges and airports.
"I have a lot of the country's infrastructure collapsing, so that's my emergency," he said in a recent interview.
Infrastructure spending is supported by a broad array of groups as a way to attack high unemployment. But highway bills also have been vehicles for the kind of pork-barrel spending that House leaders—and the conservative activists who helped elect the new House Republican majority—say must be slashed.
Early this month, House Republican leaders pushed through a rule that makes it hard to shield highway and mass-transit programs from budget cuts, despite protests from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the construction industry and unions. An aide for Mr. Mica said the chairman tried to amend the proposal to maintain funding safeguards, but still voted in favor of the broader Republican rules package that included the measure.
Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on Mr. Mica's committee, blasted the rule on the House floor earlier this month. "It may be popular [for Republicans] to say we are going to 'do more with less,' but when the rubber hits the road, the committee is going to have to make some really tough decisions to keep America's economy moving," Mr. Rahall said.
Mr. Mica hasn't said how much he would seek for his highway bill. The former Democratic chairman, Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, had proposed a six-year bill priced at $500 billion. Mr. Oberstar said that could be funded in part by higher gas taxes.
But the proposal met bipartisan resistance because of funding and other issues, and the White House prevailed on Democratic leaders in 2009 to put the bill on hold until after the 2010 election. In the interim, lawmakers have passed a series of short-term extensions to continue spending on transportation infrastructure, the latest of which was included in a stopgap funding bill approved by Congress in December.
A separate bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration and jump-start the modernization of the nation's air-traffic-control system also got hung up because of Republican opposition to Oberstar-backed provisions that benefited unions. Mr. Mica says he'd strip out those provisions to move the bill forward.
Mr. Mica was a critic of how the Obama administration handled infrastructure spending in its economic-stimulus plan. Now, he and administration officials suggest they are ready to start anew. Mr. Mica said he is open to working with Democrats and the president, saying, "He probably needs the success more than I do."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican former congressman and friend of Mr. Mica's, said he was open to finding common ground. "John really gets it when it comes to transportation," Mr. LaHood said in a recent interview. The length and size of the bills "will be determined by our priorities and how far we can really stretch a dollar."
Messrs. Obama and Mica have both opposed raising the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax. The tax, which provided about $25 billion to transportation spending for fiscal 2010, hasn't risen since 1993 and its purchasing power has fallen by more than 30% since then, according to a February 2009 report by a commission Congress established to provide policy recommendations for transportation infrastructure. Since 2008, Congress has had to use money from general funds to help maintain transportation spending levels promised to the states—a practice Republican House leaders say should stop.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has said he wanted to hold agencies accountable each year for their spending, moving away from multiyear bills. It isn't clear if he views transportation as an exception.
"Boehner believes that we can find a fiscally responsible way to fund our nation's transportation priorities," an aide for Mr. Boehner said.
Mr. Mica said he would tour the nation in February to solicit ideas on innovative ways to fund transportation projects. Using tax money to seed more private-sector investments in toll roads or parking lots is one avenue, he said.
Mr. Obama has called for establishing an infrastructure bank that would promote public-private projects.
Paul Yarossi, president of infrastructure firm HNTB Holdings, said his private-sector clients, and others, have billions of dollars to invest but need "a viable business deal to produce revenue" in return.
Mr. Mica also says money can be saved by cutting the time it takes to complete new projects to 437 days—the time it took to replace a collapsed bridge in Minneapolis—instead of the seven to eight years such projects normally consume.