Republicans eye level funding of transport programs

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 28, 2011 7:42pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are willing to try and find more money for highway and bridge construction and transit upgrades as part of long-term transportation funding legislation.

John Mica, chairman of the Transportation Committee, recently received a commitment from leadership to help identify new sources of funding to try to ensure that budgeting over a six-year period would at least meet today's spending levels, a senior congressional aide told Reuters.

Mica was not available to comment.

House Speaker John Boehner has said infrastructure is one area where Republicans and Democrats may find common ground in a bitter partisan climate over spending and deficit reduction.

Cash-strapped states are eager for details on what Congress might be willing to spend on road and bridge construction with the current flow of federal dollars only authorized by a temporary law through March.

The Transportation Department devotes about $50 billion annually to transportation construction. But revenue to fund those projects is generated by gasoline tax receipts, which have been declining steadily in recent years due to high pump prices, more fuel efficient cars and a tough economy.

Congress has had to rescue highway transportation programs with separate multi-billion-dollar cash infusions, something Republicans say is no longer an option.

Mica has yet to propose a formal long-term transportation funding blueprint in the Republican-led House, but has said he wants a six-year bill.

Forecasts for federal gas tax receipts over the next six years are expected to settle at about $35 billion annually. Maintaining funding at today's level over that period would require another $100 billion.

Republicans and the Obama administration reject any increase in the gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon to bolster highway funding even though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, influential transportation research groups and many Democrats support it.

Mica has said he would look at unspent federal transportation programs for additional funds for highway construction. However, it is unclear whether that plan has panned out.

His office would not comment on potential funding sources.

But separate legislation proposed in the House would direct a percentage of royalties from any new U.S. oil and gas drilling to transportation projects.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, called that approach a "budget gimmick," saying any royalties from energy development would not likely flow to the Treasury for years.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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