AASHTO Journal, 18 September 2015
Top officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation pressed Congress to pass a substantive long-term surface transportation bill before 2015 runs out, while scores of industry groups urged lawmakers to end a cycle of short extensions and provide the economic lift a long-term bill can bring.
Increasingly in recent days, lawmakers focused on a range of other looming issues with closer deadlines, including the need to agree on a government-wide funding plan before the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year or face a potential government shutdown.
House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., has not yet scheduled a markup session for his committee’s version of a long-term highway, transit and rail programs authorization. He has said he expects that to occur late this month or early in October.
Congress will also need to extend the Federal Aviation Administration, whose authority is set to expire that same day, to avoid interrupting some of its programs that affect a number of state departments of transportation. Politico reported that Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said he and Shuster have been discussing how to move an FAA extension, perhaps by attaching it to a short-term government funding bill.
The Highway Trust Fund is authorized through Oct. 29, which takes it past the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year and would leave the Federal Highway Administration unaffected during a possible government shutdown before then.
However, past government shutdowns have also idled some USDOT employees who help operate highway safety, transit, rail, trucking and aviation programs as well as grant and loan project financing, so any widespread disruption of federal agency operations can soon affect the overall transportation system.
The delay of immediate House action on a highway, transit and rail reauthorization measure, as lawmakers address other priorities, has stirred concern that Congress might opt to continue delaying action rather than pass a multiyear bill this fall.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx used a Sept. 16 posting on his Fast Lane blog to warn against the perception that the USDOT’s own latest projections about Highway Trust Fund balances mean Congress has more room to delay a funding fix.
Foxx said some observers “misconstrued” the department’s August update of its Trust Fund Ticker webpage “to indicate that the Highway Account of the Trust Fund will be ‘out of the woods’ for many months to come. That is hardly the case. Indeed, the trust fund could be facing rocky seas and therefore need additional funding from Congress before the end of the year, potentially as soon as this coming November.”
He explained that while the ticker forecast that highway account balances would not fall to near zero until next summer, the USDOT still needs to keep about $4 billion on hand to manage cash safely and anticipate sudden drawdown needs from states for their roadway projects.
The additional $8 billion in funding Congress authorized in July, Foxx said, will only maintain that $4 billion minimum safe balance until November.
While Foxx was trying to clear up the issue of how long the trust fund will be safely funded, scores of major industrial associations, retail groups, transportation organizations and unions signed onto a letter pressing Congress to pass a six-year bill in 2015.
“America’s transportation infrastructure network is the foundation on which the nation’s economy functions,” that letter said. “American manufacturers, industries and businesses depend on this complex system to move people, products and services every day of the year. It is also a direct contributor to enhanced personal mobility and quality of life for all Americans.”
Signers included the American Public Works Association, AAA, Associated General Contractors of America, the U.S. Travel Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Association of Manufacturers, National Retail Federation, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and more than 60 others.
“Temporary program extensions and eight years of recurring Highway Trust Fund revenue crises do not provide a path to future economic growth, jobs and increased competitiveness,” they wrote. “We urge you to end this cycle of uncertainty” by passing a long-term bill this year.
Deputy Transportation Secretary Victor Mendez told the annual AASHTO TransComm meeting of state DOT communications officers that Congress also needs to look beyond the amount of money needed to simply shore up the trust fund and decide instead what kind of results-oriented investments the nation should make in its transportation system.
Even though the Senate bill would boost overall funding by 5 percent, Mendez said, that level of investment would allow congestion to keep getting worse. He urged lawmakers to strengthen federal transportation investment and told the state officials “that money will flow back to your communities.”
Separately, David Kim, the Federal Highway Administration’s associate administrator for policy and governmental affairs, told TransComm that USDOT officials would like to see a final long-term bill by the end of this year.
If Congress were to delay action into 2016 and the presidential election year, he said, “it could be a long time” before lawmakers might again tackle a long-term bill.
Those messaging efforts were aided by a new report from the influential Business Roundtable, whose CEOs lead major U.S. corporations across a broad business spectrum. They labeled it “Road to Growth: The Case for Investing in America’s Transportation Infrastructure.”
It argues that U.S. transportation systems are underperforming and acting as a drag on commerce while robust investment to improve that infrastructure would create millions of jobs and spur economic activity.
While other groups have made similar points, the BRT comes at competitiveness and infrastructure investment issues from the viewpoint of companies that have factories across the nation, employ millions of workers and generate trillions of dollars in revenue that may depend on the mobility of workers and goods.
The group’s report says that “while the challenges are great, the economic benefits associated with infrastructure investment can be powerful and sustainable.”
Just in the short term, it sums up, “spending on infrastructure projects can create jobs and increase real GDP growth, while the ongoing maintenance and repair activities that are necessary to support infrastructure systems can create permanent and well-paying jobs for middle-class Americans.
“Over the medium term, better infrastructure can improve safety, unlock gains in private-sector productivity across a range of industries and support rising living standards for all Americans.
“Over the long term, improved transportation infrastructure can help boost America’s international competitiveness, attracting foreign direct investment to U.S. shores and giving U.S.-owned businesses more reasons to create jobs and expand operations at home.”