House Transportation Bill Would Drop High-Speed Rail

7:57 PM, Jan 31, 2012   |    comments
Photo Courtesy: Gannett News Service
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Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - House Republicans unveiled a five-year, $260 billion transportation plan Tuesday that would drop further development of high-speed rail and give governors more say in how to spend federal money.

The percentage of federal transportation money New York would receive for highways, bridges and mass transit won't be released until Wednesday.

About 60 percent of the state's federal funding would continue to go downstate areas and 40 percent would be spent upstate, according to Rep. Richard Hanna, R-Oneida County, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other governors would have more discretion in disbursing the money because the bill doesn't include special home-state projects -- or earmarks -- sponsored by individual members of Congress.

The last multi-year federal transportation plan, which expired in 2009, authorized more than 6,000 earmarked projects.

Instead, communities of 10,000 or more people could form Metropolitan Planning Associations to advise the state on their local transportation needs. The New York Department of Transportation currently is required to accept advice from 13 Metropolitan Planning Associations representing cities with more than 50,000 people, such as Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Yonkers and White Plains.

The provision for smaller communities, authored by Hanna, would allow cities and towns such as Binghamton, Elmira, Ithaca, Poughkeepsie, Port Chester and Spring Valley to have the same input as bigger cities.

The proposed House legislation also drops a requirement that states use 10 percent of their federal transportation money for beautification projects, hiking paths and biking trails.

States also would be allowed to contract with private-sector engineering firms - rather than hiring new state employees - to plan and develop major transportation projects.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said the bill would streamline the time it takes to plan major transportation projects by allowing certain tasks to occur simultaneously.

"Shovel-ready will no longer be a joke,'' Mica said at a news conference, referring to projects funded by the 2009 stimulus package that have taken years to get underway.

Mica said he plans to meet with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to separately negotiate a bipartisan plan for high-speed rail. Republicans want to allow a private company to compete with Amtrak for service on the Northeast corridor.

The fiscal 2012 federal budget has no funding for high-speed rail, following three years in which billions of dollars in the federal budget and the stimulus package were allocated for high-speed rail.

Paying for a new transportation plan is problematic because federal gasoline tax revenue is only about $37 billion compared to the $52 billion in annual funding needed to pay for the proposed legislation.

The Highway Trust Fund is running a $10 billion deficit and faces insolvency sometime during fiscal 2013, which starts Oct. 1, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported Tuesday.

House Republicans want to make up the shortfall using royalty payments from oil and gas leases, with the Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee handling the details.

Veteran Democrats such as Rep. Nita Lowey of Harrison, Westchester County, are unhappy with the prohibition against earmarks and the possibility that some transportation revenue would come from opening up oil drilling into environmentally sensitive areas.

"I continue to believe, and I've said so publicly, that members of Congress know our districts best,'' Lowey said. "We are better placed than any bureaucrat within the Department of Transportation to determine what roads, bridges, mass transit projects are the most important to build or replace. I still think it's a good idea.''

Lowey said she's receptive to finding other revenue sources to pay for the transportation projects, but she predicted "the huge differences'' between the House and the Senate bills will prevent a long-term agreement this year.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously agreed in November to a bipartisan $109 billion transportation plan that would cover two years.

Transportation Secretary LaHood had been pessimistic the House and Senate can reach an agreement, but in recent days he's been more optimistic.

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