New Congress to revisit Obama transport priorities

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans will scrutinize popular Obama administration transportation infrastructure initiatives when they assume control of the U.S. House of Representatives, possibly pulling back some funds dedicated to specific road and rail projects.

John Mica, who is expected to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Reuters in a post-election interview that he would conduct a close review of how money was spent from the 2009 economic stimulus package approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress. He also plans to reevaluate grant programs that bypassed congressional review.

The new look at spending comes after voters last week questioned Obama infrastructure priorities in electing Republican governors who campaigned against what they considered unworkable transportation spending.

To start, Mica will focus on more than $10 billion in high-speed rail awards and a $1.5 billion transportation construction financing under the so-called TIGER grant program in which funds were sent directly to states on the merit of proposed projects.

“We had unelected officials sitting behind closed doors making decisions without any hearings or without any elected officials being consulted. There was no rational explanation,” Mica said. “I’m going to have a full review of that.”

TIGER grants have been oversubscribed and state capitals want them extended, but there is no commitment from Congress to do that.

Some of the money could come back to the federal government, according to Mica, who also said that he would look at how to expedite funding in other cases.

Mica’s scrutiny of high-speed rail projects and other construction spending is shared by some critical Republicans at the state level.

Republican gubernatorial candidates who won their races in Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin last week campaigned against high speed rail development, an Obama transportation priority.

The Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, canceled construction of a new rail tunnel to New York due to cost, potentially freeing up more money for Mica’s transportation priorities.

Mica says he favors high speed rail in regions where it makes economic sense. Trains, he said, must carry enough people and truly reach high speeds as they do in Europe and Asia. Much of the U.S. high speed rail network in the planning stages now would serve short-haul corridors.


Mica also said he hopes to craft a six-year transportation spending blueprint by spring, relying less on new federal outlays and featuring plans to attract private investment for road, rail, waterway and other infrastructure improvements.

“I have some infrastructure accounts, loan funds that are unspent. I have money in trust funds that is unspent,” Mica said. “We’ll go through all of these programs. Public-private partnerships -- I’ll have much more in that regard.”

Investors, including big public pension funds, will likely embrace Mica’s determination to expedite changes in how the U.S. government finances transportation projects to include private resources.

Mica said he did not support any increase in the gasoline tax, which stands at 18.4 cents per gallon and currently is the primary source of federal spending on highway and transit construction. The Obama administration also opposes any hike in gasoline taxes.

Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Kenneth Barry