Halt in federal highway program reveals lobby’s larger frustrations

By

 Updated:

The transportation lobby stands united in its collective angst with Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, whose objections to deficit spending brought many of the federal government’s highway programs to a halt Sunday night. The political impasse over a $10 billion bill extending unemployment benefits carried the additional consequence of halting spending from the federal highway trust fund, which pays for roads, bridges and safety inspections. Until the stand-off ends, thousands of federal employees are furloughed and hundreds of millions in state funding is in limbo.

State transportation directors, who happen to be in Washington for their annual legislative meetings, held a well-attended news conference to call attention to, as Mississippi’s Larry L. “Butch” Brown put it, “the severity of the actions caused by inaction.” Underpinning their frustration was the fact that Congress has already extended an expired transportation law three times since Sept. 30 in lieu of passing a new bill.

Far and wide in the transportation lobby, from the National Asphalt Pavement Association to the public interest coalition Transportation for America, groups issued statements, flooded Washington with phone calls, and sought answers to questions that even the U.S. Department of Transportation was not prepared to answer. Among them: Who will perform the federal accounting on stimulus projects during the shutdown? “It’s not clear,” said Missouri Transportation Director Pete Rahn, after meeting with federal officials.

“This couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Brian Turmail of the Associated General Contractors of America, which was busy contacting its members, putting out alerts, and talking to congressional leaders to press for a fix. “Everyone we talked to was engaged,” Turmail said. “But until it’s fixed, you never know.”

Insiders expect the impasse to be resolved within a few days, as the House and Senate hurry to reconcile their respective jobs bills. The end result would also likely extend transportation spending through the end of the calendar year.

Groups expressed longstanding frustration toward a Congress whose cumulative missteps allowed for anyone, Sen. Bunning or otherwise, to throw the train off track in the first place. Even when Congress does move to extend transportation programs, it will constitute the fourth reprise in just five months of a “kick the can” approach, as Washington state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond put it. The last time Congress found itself similarly mired in a multiyear transport bill, the lobby witnessed a dozen such extensions.

The big struggle, as always, is money. And Congress, which has been loathe to adjust the fuel tax since 1993, keeps running out of it. The result forced billions of dollars in transfers from the Treasury in each of the last three years.

So which comes first — a visionary new transportation law or the money to pay for it? The Senate “chose not to write the bill without paying for it,” said Senate aide Tom Lynch The House, meanwhile, wrote its own 775-page measure last summer without including any specifics about revenue.

Officials at the states conference hope that one silver lining from this episode may focus public attention on transportation investments. But it just as likely may serve as the latest blow toward the public’s faith in Congress to guide the system.

Susan Binder, an aide with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, says Washington must show Americans what they will get from any increase in federal investment. The U.S. Department of Transportation, after all, released a list of projects affected by the shutdown. And state transportation heads took turns explaining how they may miss debt payments or have trouble paying certain salaries. But few outside the transportation community are talking about large national concerns.

”We don’t have the public’s enthusiastic support for what we’re doing,” says Polly Trottenberg, the Transportation Department’s assistant secretary for policy. The entire episode, she said, speaks to a “political crisis” in the transportation world.

This week certainly magnified the crisis, if not the solutions.

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now