Action is heating up in Congress on a multi-year surface transportation bill.

In the House, GOP lawmakers on Jan. 31 enthusiastically announced the introduction of their five-year highway-transit reauthorization bill at a press conference on the Capitol grounds. Democrats were conspicuously absent at the event.

The Senate is pursuing a two-year bill estimated at $109 billion and has bipartisan support.

The House bill's main architect, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said the measure's authorizations total $260 billion, about the same as current levels. But the bill is by no means fully funded. Mica estimated the Highway Trust Fund, the prime federal resource for roads and bridges, will only be able to provide $175 billion over five years.

Jack Basso, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials director of program finance and management, said that, using new Congressional Budget Office estimates, the trust fund's projected five-year revenue is about $45 billion to $50 billion short of the Mica bill's $260 billion level.

House Republicans plan to add provisions to expand oil and gas drilling, aiming to tap some of the resulting royalty and tax revenue for roads and transit, thus narrowing the Mica bill's funding gap.

But critics say increased oil and gas-related revenue won't be enough to cover the spread between the trust fund's revenue and $260 billion.

The Senate bill also has a shortfall, estimated at $12 billion. The chamber's banking committee is slated to approve that measure's transit title on Feb. 2. The highway title cleared the Environment and Public Works Committee in November.

Funding is always the central issue in surface transportation bills. But Mica's proposal  also includes significant policy changes. They include merging or eliminating about 70 current highway and transit programs and abolishing the current mandatory set-aside to pay for bike paths, walkways and other "transportation enhancements."

The prospect of ending the enhancements program is triggering a counter-offensive from groups like the American Institute of Architects that want to keep the program going.

Mica's proposal also seeks to expedite project approvals to shave perhaps years from the review process, by having multiple federal agencies review projects concurrently, rather than in sequence. But he added, "We don't roll over any environmental laws."

In addition, the bill sharply expands direct federal aid to TIFIA--the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program for major projects. Under the Mica bill, TIFIA funding would climb to $1 billion a year, from $122 million now.

The Senate highway title also consolidates transportation programs, has project streamlining provisions and gives a big boost to TIFIA. But it keeps the enhancements program intact, though with greater flexibility for states. 

The House proposal does not include a federal infrastructure bank, a concept other lawmakers have proposed. Mica said, "What do I need one for, I've got TIFIA."

Mica acknowledged, "This is not the final bill. But this is a major start, folks."