AASHTO Journal, 10 April 2015
Photos: Courtesy T&I Committee
Members of Congress and state officials – including the heads of some state departments of transportation – used the congressional Easter recess to press on several fronts for lawmakers to enact long-term surface transportation legislation when lawmakers Congress is back in session.
That push came as time is growing short for action, since Congress will have only about seven weeks to act before current authority for the Highway Trust Fund expires May 30. Prior to the recess, House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said lawmakers will need to decide soon after their return whether to press ahead this spring to pass a long-term authorization bill or opt for a quick extension before the May deadline.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently told reporters his department would need to begin restricting normal HTF reimbursements to states for project costs sometime in July if Congress has not replenished the trust fund by then. Already, at least four states have delayed road and bridge projects valued at more than $1.3 billion due to uncertainty over when they could count on the federal funding.
On April 7, Shuster launched a two-day “Pennsylvania Transport Roadshow“ across his state to highlight infrastructure needs and try to build momentum for a long-term bill in Congress.
He was joined at different events by members of his Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from various states, business and state leaders, and top officials from five state DOTs. Their first stop was at a busy stretch of Interstate 376 in the Pittsburgh area, where an overhead bridge was shedding exterior material and crews had built a second structure underneath to catch debris that might otherwise strike cars and trucks.
Joining Shuster at that Greenfield Bridge were Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards, Oklahoma Secretary Gary Ridley, Secretary Anthony Tata of North Carolina, South Carolina Secretary Janet Oakley and Texas DOT Executive Director Joe Weber.
Richards told reporters that “this is a $19 million bridge replacement project and it is 80 percent federal-funded. Without federal funding this project will not move forward.”
Shuster said: “We have a situation in America, when it comes to our infrastructure, our transportation system – we need to make investments.” He said there are bridges and highways all across the nation that need to be rebuilt, “and it’s so important to the viability of our economy, to keep America competitive.”
Ridley said states have been increasing their own transportation revenues, but that it is time for Congress to act. “Individual states and local units of government have stepped up,” he said, as reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The federal government needs to step up.”
That roadshow sprang from a discussion Shuster and Ridley held months ago, according to committee staff, and grew to include Richards and eventually other state DOT chiefs.
The plan, which Shuster’s team feel was successful, aimed to “highlight the country’s infrastructure needs, the need for a long-term surface transportation bill, and the need for a continued federal role in ensuring a cohesive, effective national transportation system,” an aide said.
Shuster’s series of events drew the most state transportation officials from around the country, but a number of other activities also focused public attention on infrastructure and the need for federal investment.
April 9 was “Stand Up for Transportation Day,” which drew a raft of sponsors including local transit and regional transportation planning agencies, construction groups, some state DOTs, the American Public Transportation Association and AASHTO. Events held in most states included some members of Congress.
“Only comprehensive, long-term federal funding will enable us to repair, maintain, and adequately expand America’s public transportation, roads, bridges, ports, and rail systems to help bring our national transportation system up to speed with the 21st Century,” says the campaign website.
Before those efforts by Shuster and the “Stand Up” campaign, other events spurred lawmakers or state officials to talk about federal funding needs.
Melinda McGrath, executive director of the Mississippi DOT, issued an April 2 statement saying: “The need for federal funding to repair roads and bridges has never been greater.” She also warned that “continued delays in federal funding will eventually create safety hazards for the traveling public and devastate economic growth.” (See related story in this week’s Journal.)
An April 6 launch of a southern Nevada highway project prompted both the state’s U.S. senators to weigh in on the need for action in Washington. (See related story.)
Democrat Harry Reid told a crowd at the Boulder City Bypass groundbreaking – the first leg of an eventual Interstate 11 – that it is tough to get more infrastructure funding approved in Congress, and said short-term extensions made it hard for the DOTs in Nevada and neighboring Arizona to plan highway improvements along with that bypass.
Republican Dean Heller, in a statement to the Nevada Legislature, said he was pushing legislation about the proposed I-11 corridor in the Senate, and spelled out his position on the Highway Trust Fund.
“I believe it is important to find creative solutions to enact a long-term surface transportation bill and keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent without increasing our nation’s deficit,” Heller said.
“As the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee’s Working Group on Infrastructure, I am well positioned to advocate on behalf of Nevada’s and our nation’s transportation needs. I strongly believe that infrastructure plays a key role in our nation’s and Nevada’s economic growth. This is why I am seeking a long-term extension of the highway bill. It will provide jobs in the short term and economic growth in the long term.”