State Officials, Lawmakers Urge Congress to Enact Long-term Bill, Avoid More Extensions

AASHTO Journal, 5 June 2015

In a series of separate messages from across the country, officials of several states have said they need Congress to maintain a strong federal transportation program and enact a long-term reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund.

And on Capitol Hill, Politico reported, Democratic leaders have been considering an aggressive strategy of forcing majority Republicans into a series of votes on very short-term extensions beyond the current July 31 expiration in order to keep pressure on Congress to come up with at least $90 billion to fund a six-year highway and transit program.

“Unless Republicans can come up with tens of billions of dollars in new tax money or spending cuts,” Politico said, “the GOP could be forced to acquiesce to Democratic demands or risk a shutdown of infrastructure projects in the middle of the summer construction season.”

AASHTO Journal earlier reported that key transportation-focused Democrats raised the possibility in May that they or other party members might draw a line against voting for future short-term extensions.

That was part of the focus of a June 1 field hearing in Baton Rouge, La., of a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee that is responsible for drafting the highway program portion of a new Senate reauthorization bill.

Sherri LeBas, Louisiana’s transportation secretary, told the panel that “no state can effectively manage” its transportation network without the federal investment.

For instance, because “many of Louisiana’s bridges are rapidly reaching their limit of serviceability, it is crucial” for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, she said, “to get robust federal participation to help reconstruct or extend the service life or replace these bridges.”

LeBas indicated Congress should increase federal program spending rather than keep it at current levels. “With much more funding, there is so much more we could be doing for this state’s infrastructure,” she said. “We need stability in transportation funding over a longer period of six years or more and at least maintaining current funding levels, but preferably increasing to meet our nation’s many transportation infrastructure needs.”

Also on June 1, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy touted the additional highway, passenger rail and transit improvements his administration can make under a new two-year budget agreement with his General Assembly that boosts transportation spending. (See related story in the States section of this week’s Journal.)

But Malloy also used his announcement to send a message to Congress. “While we are taking action, Washington is not,” he said. “States across the country will see their infrastructure struggle suffer because Congress has failed to pass a long-term transportation bill. Connecticut, through this agreement, is standing up for residents, businesses, and the economy. It’s time for Congress to do so as well.”

About the same time, Congress was getting a similar message from both the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and from the International Monetary Fund. (See story in Nation section.)

Separately, the chief executives of three state departments of transportation – for Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Tennessee – have told AASHTO’s Transportation TV they look for federal funding certainty in order to plan infrastructure projects to replace or upgrade aging roads and bridges.

Two of those states, Arkansas and Tennessee, have already placed more than $750 million worth of roadway projects on hold that they could have launched in 2015, due to lack of certainty about when the federal cost share would be available.

Members of Congress had not yet returned to Washington from a Memorial Day recess period when news broke that the iconic and heavily traveled Arlington Memorial Bridge that connects Virginia with the District of Columbia would need emergency repairs for corroded supports and months of traffic restrictions.

The bridge is used by tens of thousands of commuters each day, along with tourists crossing the Potomac between Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joined area lawmakers June 1 in Arlington, Va.,​ with views of the bridge and the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop.

Memorial Bridge Memorial Bridge photo courtesy Library of Congress

Foxx said the bridge built in 1932 was designed to be a symbol of American unity. “Now, instead of a bridge symbolizing national unity,” Foxx said, “the Arlington Memorial Bridge symbolizes a different national trend: For 6 years now, Congress has been patching together our transportation and putting off the real repairs and improvements our nation’s roads and bridges so badly need.”

He continued: “Like transportation funding itself, multiple emergency repairs have been made on the Arlington Memorial Bridge in recent years. But I don’t know how much longer we can sustain this treasure – or our transportation funding – with Band-Aids.”

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