Sunday, June 17, 2012

Political Rhetoric Builds No Roads

With a mere two weeks left before the current band aid Highway Trust Fund extension legislation expires, Senators and Congressmen seem more focused on political game playing than they are on the closed door conference committee negotiations which give the only hope for any legislative initiative beyond another episode of kicking the can down the road. Last week Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer pulled five concrete mixers onto the pavement at the foot of Capitol Hill as a backdrop for her speech to a “get the bill done” rally where she intoned, “There is only one group standing in the way of the bill … That group of people that’s standing in the way of jobs and business – those are the House Republicans. That’s the facts, and that’s the truth.” New York Senator Charles Schumer was even less circumspect in his remarks in front of the concrete trucks, referring to “a hundred House Republicans – militants, radicals, extremists – who actually believe the federal government should not be involved in highway building.”

Within minutes, a press release from the other side of the aisle blamed Senate Democrats for inaction on this most important economic legislation which has been languishing for over three years in Capitol back rooms. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica shot back with a reference to the pet provisions House leadership wants included in any long term highway legislation. Referring to House initiatives to cut back on environmental protection and review for road construction projects, and specific fast tracking of the Keystone XL Canadian tar sands oil pipeline, Mica’s release says “I am disappointed in the fact that Senate negotiators have yet to move on key House reform proposals …. In addition, the Senate appears unwilling to compromise at all on the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Speaker Boehner has already indicated he expects to see nothing more than another temporary extension - six months this time – pushing back any opportunity for leadership and a real solution to this major economic issue until after the presidential election. Despite a letter from 17 transportation and construction industry groups sent to all 47 conferees pointing out that the Highway Trust Fund will run out of cash in early 2013 unless a long term reauthorization measure with increased revenue sources is passed, Senators and Congressmen are still putting their pet projects and reelection rhetoric ahead of the nation’s economic and infrastructure needs. The industry groups made clear that the Congressional tourniquet on infrastructure funding is causing gangrene in this major sector of our economy: “A six month extension is not the way to go,” their letter says. “This approach could further exacerbate the Highway Trust Fund’s financial crisis and cause states to cut back on transportation investments during what should be the peak construction season.”

Actually, this is the fourth year during which state and local governments have been forced to defer or cancel much needed infrastructure construction and repair projects because of the uncertainty surrounding availability of federal motor fuel tax revenues to pay for projects which are already approved. Several state highway officials are already dealing with what the industry calls “hard stops and starts” on jobs already underway – a very expensive and wasteful manner of conducting any sort of construction effort. This monumental lack of Congressional leadership on what should be a non-controversial issue is already responsible for hundreds of millions in wasted taxpayer dollars at a time when needs are growing while revenues are shrinking. There is no excuse for such behavior in Washington.

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