House highway bill leaves California earmarks at the curb

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 7, 2011 

WASHINGTON - California road and rail projects once found a secure home in huge transportation bills passed by Congress. Not any more.

On Thursday, key House members rolled out a six-year, $230 billion transportation proposal that omits the kind of local project earmarks long championed by California lawmakers.

No Sacramento light rail. No Fresno buses. No Modesto-area road-widening. In sum, none of the earmarks that padded out the 2005 transportation bill.

Instead, Republican leaders propose to turn the traditional transportation pork barrel into an earmark-free zone. California would still get funding, but without pinpoint targeting.

"While some continue to advocate the same old tax-and-spend approach, I prefer a new direction," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in a statement.

A comparable Senate transportation bill to be introduced soon by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer will likewise remain free of traditional earmarks, because congressional leaders have agreed to forgo them.

This is a marked change from the last time Congress passed a big-ticket transportation bill. That 2005 package itemized at least $3.7 billion for an assortment of specific California road and transit projects.

The California Department of Transportation's list of itemized California projects in the 2005 bill spanned 38 pages, from sealing unpaved roads in Calaveras County and building a campus parkway near Merced to constructing a Pismo Beach boardwalk.

California's overall share from the last transportation bill amounted to about $23 billion, with much of it allocated by formula.

Outside of their mutual shunning of earmarks, though, the competing House and Senate transportation bills present different paths for lawmakers.

The House bill amounts to an approximately 20 percent spending reduction from the 2005 bill's funding levels, and is about half of what the Obama administration initially proposed. The House bill retains the current 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax.

Boxer's bill, which has not yet been formally introduced, provides $109 billion over two years. This extends the 2005 funding levels, adjusted for inflation.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that Boxer chairs will mark up its version of the transportation bill later this month.

"We've got to get it done," Boxer said this week at a news conference. "There's tremendous support from business, from workers and from the American people for a transportation bill that promotes sound economic growth."

The 2005 transportation bill expired in 2009, and the latest extension runs out Sept. 30. This gives House and Senate members little time to pass their bills and work out their differences.

The negotiators, in turn, will be pressured and cajoled by myriad lobbyists. The California High-Speed Rail Authority, Southern California Regional Rail Authority and the cities of Elk Grove and Livermore, among many others, all are paying lobbyists who have registered this year to follow the transportation bill, public records show.

"We're the biggest state in the union, so we're affected more in terms of sheer numbers," Boxer said, adding "you can't be a world-class economic power unless you move people."

Besides money, lawmakers will haggle over environmental protections and more.

On Thursday, for instance, House Republicans cited a six-year delay in installing new guardrails and other improvements along a dangerous section of Old Priest Grade Road in rural Tuolumne County in explaining why permit approvals and environmental reviews should be streamlined.

The House Republican package calls, as well, for the consolidation or elimination of about 70 transportation department programs deemed unnecessary or extraneous.

These targeted programs include, for instance, a pilot program from 2005 that provided $25 million to Boxer's home region of Marin County for bicycle and pedestrian path improvements.

House Republicans said their transportation bill would focus high-speed rail funds on projects that travel at least 125 miles per hour. California's high-speed rail project apparently fits this standard, with anticipated speeds through the Central Valley up to 220 miles per hour.

At the same time, the House bill could bring greater scrutiny to California, as lawmakers call for other high-speed rail "reforms" whose details remain unclear.

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House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

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