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Bait and Switch: House GOP Offers Drilling Bill Masquerading as a Transportation Bill

Peter Lehner

Posted February 3, 2012 in Moving Beyond Oil

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The fund America uses to repair and expand our highways transit systems is about to go broke. But instead of endorsing responsible and proven ways to balance the books, House Republicans have assembled a transportation bill so extreme it has enflamed everyone from fiscal conservatives to public health advocates.

Not only would it gut long-standing environmental safeguards and expand offshore drilling in places Congress has protected for decades. It would also eradicate a public transit fund that was crafted by President Reagan and has enjoyed bipartisan support for 30 years.

The House bill would do all this damage—and deepen our oil dependence—without even paying for itself.

It’s no wonder highway builders associations, conservative think tanks, taxpayer groups, and environmentalists have lined up in opposition to this bill.

I don’t know one American who wants to make their trip to work longer, harder, or more expensive. Yet that is what would happen if House Republicans have their way. Commuter trains would run less often, rural bus services would decrease, and our streets would become more clogged with traffic as transit options shrink.

The net result of all of this is that America would increase our dependence on oil, and Americans would be more vulnerable to volatile oil prices spikes.

That hasn’t stopped Republican leaders from offering a bait and switch: their so-called transportation bill is really an oil drilling bill. It wouldn’t actually provide the funding needed for our transportation system, but it would industrialize pristine stretches of America’s natural heritage—including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—and open the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts to offshore drilling. This will leave thousands of communities and businesses vulnerable to oil spills, especially since Congress hasn’t strengthen safety or environmental standards after the BP disaster.

GOP lawmakers say this drilling scheme will help fund the transportation bill. But America’s highway fund is running in the red right now, but royalty payments from oil and gas leases won’t arrive in the treasury for years to come. At best, they will generate a few billion dollars in revenue, yet the gap in transportation funding is measured in the tens of billions.

The numbers simply don’t add up, and that alarms fiscal watchdogs.  Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense said “This is not a responsible budget approach. It's like buying the Ferrari tomorrow because you are sure a raise is coming sometime in the future. If you think this sounds like a similar story that got us into our current budgetary quagmire, you’d be right.”

On Thursday, Republican lawmakers announced another radical bookkeeping measure. They proposed removing the mass transit fund out of the highway trust and tossing it into the general fund, where it would have to compete with every other government program, pretty much assuring a reduced investment in mass transit.

In other words, Republicans want to pay for their transportation bill by gutting public transportation—the buses, trains, and other options that carry commuters to work and reduce traffic on our streets and highways.

Killing the transit fund would be a dramatic break from the GOP’s own history. Thirty years ago, President Reagan called for raising the gas tax by five cents a gallon in order “to ensure that our roads and transit systems are safe, efficient, and in good repair.” The transportation bill he signed in 1982 set aside 80 percent of the gas-tax revenues for highways and 20 percent for public transit. That same system has been in place ever since and garnered broad political support.

The Republican proposal to kill the public transit fund has proved hugely unpopular. Even two of the nation’s biggest road building groups—the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the American Society of Civil Engineers—oppose this move against public transportation.

They join the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Club for Growth in criticizing key aspects of the House transportation bill.

We need Congress to set aside destructive drilling schemes and present a bipartisan bill—like the one in the Senate—that provides a balance of investments in highways, bridges, and the many public transit options that will improve our quality of life and create jobs.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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