Foxx Calls on AASHTO Members for Help Pushing Congress on Long-Term Funding

AASHTO Journal, 26 November 2014

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Photos by Mario Olivero, AASHTO.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called on AASHTO members to strengthen their push for Congress to pass a new federal highway and transit bill, citing examples of past success when AASHTO strongly engaged the funding issue and a recent example by Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer.

The TennDOT CEO recently told lawmakers in his state and in Tennessee’s congressional delegation that he had to strip nearly $400 million worth of construction and planning projects from the state’s 2015 project calendar, for lack of certainty over when Congress will settle its current-year budget and replenish the Highway Trust Fund beyond next May.

Foxx, a featured speaker in the packed Nov. 23 plenary session of the association’s annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C., asked other state DOT chiefs to follow Schroer’s example and tell Congress about infrastructure projects they have to drop from their immediate planning lists due to uncertainty in Washington.

“You should join Tennessee and publish that list of projects that are imperiled by short-term, short-sighted measures,” Foxx said in his prepared remarks. “That will get attention, and help change the dynamic” on Capitol Hill, he said.

In his Charlotte speech and later in a report about it on the DOT’s “Fast Lane” blog site, the USDOT secretary also noted that after AASHTO was formed 100 years ago, the organization played a key role in getting Congress to fund early road projects.

It continued to use that influence through the decades that followed, Foxx added. He said when Congress passed the law creating the Interstate Highway System under President Eisenhower, lawmakers enacted it only after a long effort that included state DOT officials.

“In 1955, after Eisenhower outlined a national highway program, Congress debated the funding for 18 months. That debate might never have been resolved if AASHTO members had not put pressure on Congress to get it done,” said Foxx.

Foxx said today the transportation stakeholders are not pushing Congress with the same intensity. “Today, just like 60 years ago, we need Congress to pass a transportation funding bill. But the difference this time is: Not enough people are putting in the muscle to make sure it’s a good one.”

Foxx said the conventional wisdom in Washington now is that Congress will pass another short-term patch next May for the Highway Trust Fund “that’s probably also short of the funds our transportation system needs,” rather than a long-term bill that puts more money into transportation investments.

He said AASHTO members can help change the thinking in Congress about what is needed for transportation. “It’s not that they can’t pass a long-term bill,” in Congress, he said. “It’s that they think they don’t have to. They think that as long as you get level funding in a short-term patch, your states will be happy.”

In what he called the “tough love” part of his speech, Foxx said if other state DOT executives publish lists of their own projects that are threatened by congressional inaction and short-term extensions, “that will get attention, and help change the dynamic.”

He also urged them to press for more robust funding that just keeping federal programs at current levels. “You more than anyone else know we are underinvesting in a dangerous way,” Foxx said. “According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we’re on track to underinvest in transportation by about $1 trillion dollars by the time the decade is up.”

Foxx referred to the repeated short-term measures Congress has passed, and the difficulty of getting lawmakers to boost transportation spending.

“I know that a lot of you have been in the trenches for a long time,” he said. “I know that these funding fights have left you battle-weary. But I need you not to buy into the Washington fallacy that a long-term transportation bill isn’t possible.

“I know it can be done. But I also know it can’t be done without you – without you raising your voices, reaching out to your delegations, meeting with your chambers of commerce. Get your governors on board with us.”

Tying today’s challenge back to AASHTO’s history of playing a crucial role in past funding efforts, he said: “It never has been done without you. And it never will be done without you.”

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