House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) unveiled an outline of a not-yet-introduced $230-billion, six-year surface-transportation bill, saying at a July 7 briefing that new House rules limited the size of the bill to the Highway Trust Fund’s projected receipts.

There also is widespread opposition in Congress to bolstering the trust fund with a hike in the federal gas tax

Mica said he would love to have had a larger funding total, but added, "We have to deal with the cards that are dealt."

Democrats, who said they were excluded from drafting the measure, fired back quickly, saying the plan would cut highway-transit funding by about 30% and result in the loss of more than 490,000 jobs, including many in construction and manufacturing.

The House committee’s top Democrat, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, said, “It appears that this bill can best be described as the Republican road to ruin.”

Construction industry groups praised policy changes in Mica’s proposal, including provisions to expedite project delivery. But they feel the funding is too low.

At $230 billion over six years, Mica's plan is about 20% less than the last long-term highway-transit bill, 2005's SAFETEA-LU, which authorized $286 billion over six years.

American Road and Transportation Builders Association CEO Peter Ruane said that "every member of the House needs to clearly understand that any highway and transit program bill that is constrained by the existing revenue stream into the Highway Trust Fund...would be a sure-fire job killer." 

Under Mica’s plan, combined highway and transit funding would start at $35 billion in 2012, then rise gradually, to $42 billion in 2017. He said about 80% of the totals would go to highways and 20% to transit, approximately the same ratio in place now.

Mica said his committee would “look for every way possible to maximize those dollars.”

One dollar-stretching move is a provision to expand the existing Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program, which provides federal loans and loan guarantees for major projects.

Mica proposes to boost direct federal funds for TIFIA to $1 billion a year, from $122 million now. Every direct federal TIFIA dollar results in $10 in loans.

Another cornerstone of Mica’s proposal is a set of provisions aimed at getting projects completed more rapidly than they are now—including shortening the environmental review process. That could result in cutting the time from a planning through construction completion to less than eight years, from as much as 15 years now.

Mica says his “back of the envelope” calculation shows that the TIFIA expansion, project acceleration and other provisions would stretch the bill’s $38.3-billion average annual authorization to a “value” of about $70 billion per year.

But Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a senior transportation committee member, dismissed that calculation as “fantasy funding.”

The envisioned bill doesn’t go as far as some had hoped in expanding tolling. It would allow states to impose tolls on Interstate capacity expansions, such as new lanes. But it would not permit states to add tolls to existing toll-free Interstates.

Nor does Mica’s plan include a federal infrastructure bank, which the Obama administration and several senators have proposed. Instead, Mica seeks to increase the role of state infrastructure banks, by letting states use up to 15% of their federal highway dollars for such banks, compared with 10% under current law.

In the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said on July 6 that she and other committee leaders are working on a two-year, $109-billion highway-transit measure. She says that would require supplementing expected trust fund receipts by $12 billion.

But Mica said, "The two-year plan is a recipe for bankruptcy of the trust fund and would close down long-term projects across the country."

There is no formal draft yet of Mica’s bill, but he said he is planning a hearing on the proposal on July 12.

The lawmakers face a deadline. Highway and transit programs have been operating under a series of extensions since Sept. 30, 2009, when SAFETEA-LU, expired. The latest of the extensions runs out on Sept. 30.