US House of Representatives to unveil highway bill

WASHINGTON, July 6 Wed Jul 6, 2011 5:36pm EDT

WASHINGTON, July 6 (Reuters) - The House of Representatives Transportation Committee on Thursday will roll out a multi-billion-dollar, six-year blueprint for funding roads, highways and bridges in the United States, aiming to bolster state infrastructure banks.

The authorization, commonly referred to as the "Highway Bill" will be smaller in scope than envisioned in the Senate. It will authorize spending of $35 billion a year for six years, putting the initial price tag at $210 billion.

Instead of establishing a national infrastructure bank, the legislation will provide state infrastructure banks with more money, committee Chairman John Mica, a Republican, said on Wednesday. A little less than two-thirds of the states -- 32 -- have infrastructure banks.

"They don't have to come to Washington to get approval. They don't have to go through the red tape," Mica said about the banks. "We're looking at evolving that for the states."

The previous $285 billion, five-year authorization expired in 2009 and Congress has relied on a patchwork of short-term extensions as it debates the next round of authorization. The current extension ends Sept. 30.

The Senate is expecting to take up soon a $339 billion authorization that also will lack a national infrastructure bank, which President Barack Obama has long pushed to establish. Separate legislation in the Senate would create an independent agency that some have called the "Federal Reserve of Infrastructure."

The major issue is how to pay for any authorization.

Obama has trumpeted infrastructure investment as a way to create jobs, but since the November election, when Republicans took control of the House on promises of cutting the deficit, Washington has had little appetite for a large highway bill.

The trust fund filled with gas tax revenues that is the major source of funding is chronically short.

Mica would not commit to when the House will take up the bill, saying current talks about reducing the deficit are consuming much of the chamber's schedule.

The bill, which will emphasize a popular financing program known as "TIFIA," will not go over amounts in the trust fund in order to abide by spending limits in the House, Mica said.

The committee will consider building up a high-speed rail network later, which will help keep the price tag small. The Senate bill, too, will likely not address high-speed rail.

"Don't think I'm not looking for additional solutions and resources, but given what I have this is what I'm going to propose," Mica told reporters about the possibility that the authorized amount could grow if other funds become available.

The country spends about $160 billion annually on highways alone, with roughly $40 billion coming from the federal government, according to the Congressional Budget Office. States receive funds based on a formula that will likely change under the House bill, according to a committee aide.

Obama proposed in February spending $556 billion over six years in the largest transportation plan in U.S. history. He suggested creating an infrastructure bank and also chugging ahead on plans to build a high-speed rail network.

The 2009 stimulus plan jump-started the high-speed rail building with $8 billion and put about $40 billion total toward transportation Much of that money has been spent.

One area where members of both parties and both chambers can agree is TIFIA, which stands for Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. Mica would like to accelerate the application process for the low interest loans. (Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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