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House transportation bill would harm California, Democrats say

February 11, 2012 |  1:49 pm

As Congress gears up for an unusual fight over a new transportation bill, virtually all of California’s Democratic delegation has come out against the Republican-drafted measure, saying it would cut funding to the state.

The state’s Democrats also say they object to provisions that would bar funding for California’s high-speed rail project, open the Southern California coast to energy exploration and "cripple our transit agencies" by ending the decades-old use of gas tax funds for mass transit. They contend the bill would cut highway funding to the state by nearly $725 million over five years.

"If this bill is enacted into law, it will hurt California’s fragile economy by cutting vital funding, prohibiting new funds from being dispersed to one of California’s largest infrastructure projects and delaying safety measures," the lawmakers said in a letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The five-year, $260-billion House bill, dubbed the "American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act" by its drafters, includes one measure eagerly sought by Los Angeles officials to speed up expansion of the region’s public transit system: $1 billion a year nationwide for a federal program that provides loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit to  help fund projects.

But while transportation bills traditionally have enjoyed bipartisan support, the House bill has drawn Democratic opposition because, among other things, it relies on revenues from new oil drilling to fund road projects and would end the use of gas tax funds for public transit.

Passage of a transportation bill has been complicated by consumers buying more fuel-efficient cars, which reduces gas tax revenues, and Congress ending the practice of lawmakers earmarking funds for projects in their districts.

The earmarking helped win votes for bills in the past but sparked a public outcry after the last big transportation bill, in 2005, was filled with thousands of earmarks, including Alaska's "bridge to nowhere.’’

"It's a lot harder to win votes when you don't have goodies to pass out," Boehner told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Boehner also said at a news conference the measure would be the first highway bill he's ever supported.  "In the past, highway bills represented everything that was wrong with Washington: earmarks, endless layers of bureaucracy, wasted tax dollars and misplaced priorities,'' he said.

Transit agencies have expressed concern that the House bill would subject public transit to annual budget fights at a time when lawmakers are eager to reduce deficit spending.

California Democrats also complained about the prohibition on funding high-speed rail in the state.

"Prohibiting funds for high-sped rail in California, when other states are free to move forward with high-speed rail, will prevent California from being able to decide how to best address its capacity constraints and transportation needs," they wrote.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), who sought to prohibit funding for the project, said in a statement: “Highway bill money should be used on highways.

"This administration and the California legislature want high-speed rail at any cost, they will spend lavishly without a disciplined plan and say anything to get it done, but this amendment will prohibit highway bill money from being used on a project that is going nowhere fast.”

The House could vote on its bill as early as next week. The Senate is considering a two-year, $109-billion transportation bill.

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--Richard Simon in Washington

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