Friday, February 10, 2012

Highway Trust Fund Battle Lines Reemerge – More Potholes On The Way

Shortly after his first State of the Union message, President Obama proposed a $550 billion six year reauthorization of the federal Highway Trust Fund. It didn’t pass Congress. Many industry experts labeled that proposal as woefully inadequate to meet even present infrastructure construction, repair and maintenance needs. Since then infrastructure construction funding in the federal budget has been accomplished by a series of interim appropriation extensions, a few months at a time.

Earlier this week two bills emerged from Congressional committees which would provide more or less long term appropriations for the Highway Trust Fund, though at levels far beneath the amounts Obama initially proposed, despite the fact American infrastructure continues to fall deeper and deeeper into disrepair as state and local government budgets are strained by declining revenues and burgeoning human sustenance needs.

Chairman John Mica’s (R. Fla) House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reported out the 847 page HR 7, dubbed the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012, which includes appropriations of $138.5 billion for the Highway Trust Fund over the next for years or about $34.6 billion each year: a mere 37.8% of the amount President Obama couldn’t get through a Democratic Congress. Chairman Max Baucus’ (D. Mont.) Senate Finance Committee reported out the 632 page SB 1813, entitled the Highway Investment, Job Creation and Economic Growth Act of 2012,  which includes appropriations totalling $83.3 billion over only the next 2 years, or about $41.6 billion each year, a somewhat more ambitious 45.4% of President Obama’s initial annual request.

Both pieces of legislation are peppered with various anti-pork and anti-earmark provisions, which could well steal the spotlight from the awesome decreases in spending levels. Conservative think tanks are already assaulting the meagre provisions of funds for hiking trails, bicycle paths and scenic preservation construction – work often subbed out to minority and woman owned small businesses to meet the 10% small business set aside requirements in both measures. This is less an assault on highway beautification than it is an attack on minority and women construction business set asides. These public opinion campaigns, couched as “living within our means” policy, are in reality ambushes laid against the progress in the construction industry which public funding set asides have enabled women and minority owned businesses to achieve.

Whatever the ultimate conference committee version of Highway Trust Fund reauthorization may look like, I predict it will be a long time coming, and be woefully underfunded. Meanwhile, with the wintertime freeze/thaw cycle in full swing, we will be seeing more and more potholes on our streets and highways while Congress endlessly debates these measures.

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