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US House Considers Transportation Priorities
Federal transportation funding proposal discourages speed cameras and trolleys, encourages toll roads.

Reps. John Mica and John Boehner
Congress will take up legislation this week reauthorizing federal transportation programs for the next five years. Republicans in control of the House see the allocation of $260 billion in funding as an opportunity to realign America's transportation priorities. Among the provisions in the 979-page legislation is a ban on the use of federal "highway safety" grants on red light cameras or speed cameras.

"Prohibition: A state may not obligate funds apportioned to the state under section 104(b) to carry out any program to purchase, operate, or maintain an automated traffic enforcement system," H.R. 7 states.

The language is repeated elsewhere in the legislation to block the use of Section 402 grants on cameras. According to a 2003 report by the Government Accountability Office, this funding, which ultimately comes from the federal tax on gasoline, was used to create the red light camera programs in Decatur, Georgia and Howard County, Maryland.

Currently, the federal government imposes a tax on every gallon of gasoline sold. This money is re-allocated to the states according to a formula based on various economic, geographic and political factors. Each federal dollar also comes with strings attached, including the mandate that money be spent on certain types of transit and other non-highway projects. The House proposal would cut those strings and allow states to choose either to dedicate highway money to highways or to continue the present diversion of funds. House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Florida) argues the more efficient funding structure will create jobs.

"The American people aren't lazy, they're tired of federal red tape, bureaucracy and obstacles that have been put in their way to again be the most creative people on the face of the earth," Mica said on the bill's introduction. "We hope to restore some of that with the proposal before you."

The bill also consolidates seventy duplicative transportation programs and streamlines agency environmental review procedures commonly used to block road projects. The House bill would also allow the private sector to offer public transportation services.

The bill encourages tolling by offering $1 billion per year in loan subsidies for foreign and domestic toll road firms. It also encourages states to create their own toll road subsidy banks by allowing them to divert of up to 15 percent of highway funding to the bank.

Though the emphasis is on tolling new interstate highway capacity, existing freeway lanes can still be tolled. In addition to a federal pilot project for converting freeways into toll roads, the transportation bill would allow conversion of any high-occupancy vehicle lane -- which often are free for any vehicle to use on weekends or off-peak hours -- into a toll lane.

Debate on H.R. 7, kicks off Wednesday.

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