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Congress, interest groups gear up for highway bill

Crews from Edward Kraemer & Sons Inc. begin demolition on westbound College Avenue over northbound Interstate 94 on April 18. Congress is expected to consider a six-year highway and transit construction bill that could total roughly a half-trillion dollars.  Photo by Bob Wazniak

Crews from Edward Kraemer & Sons Inc. begin demolition on westbound College Avenue over northbound Interstate 94 on April 18. Congress is expected to consider a six-year highway and transit construction bill that could total roughly a half-trillion dollars. Photo by Bob Wazniak

Joan Lowy
AP Writer

Washington — It was an ironic start to legislative efforts to tackle the nation’s transportation woes.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar completely missed a news conference on innovative transit programs Thursday because his car was stuck in traffic caused by an accident in a congested commuter tunnel.

The Minnesota Democrat had another news conference scheduled later Friday with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, who estimate Congress needs to spend $470 billion to get the nation’s transportation system back on track.

That event, and Thursday’s gathering organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, are two of several being staged in coming weeks as interest groups try to influence the shape of a six-year highway and transit construction bill expected to total roughly a half-trillion dollars. Oberstar hopes to introduce the legislation in May and win swift House passage.

Already lined up on both sides of this heavyweight Washington lobbying contest are the trucking and construction industries, environmentalists, “smart growth” advocates, labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. To pass a bill of the sweep and size he envisions, Oberstar said everyone involved will have to first sell the plan to the public.

There is a consensus in Congress that something major needs to be done about the transportation mess.

People are spending more time in their cars trying to get to work — or anywhere, for that matter. Transit systems are carrying record numbers of riders and, in some cases, are cutting back service. Freight delays, both highway and rail, are costing industry and consumers billions of dollars. An alarming share of the nation’s highways, bridges, tunnels, and train cars have aged beyond their intended life and are in disrepair.

“It is clear we need more revenue in the system, more investment dollars, but we can’t just say to people, ‘do this, do that.’ We have to show what we’re going to do with this program, how we are going to make it more responsive to their needs,” Oberstar said. “If people see that, then they’ll support it.”

That’s no small sales job.

“If you polled the public now, what most people think of when you say ‘federal transportation programs’ is the ‘bridge to nowhere,'” said Natural Resources Defense Council transportation lobbyist Deron Lovaas, referring to a bridge projected to cost nearly $400 million that would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with 50 residents.

The project, which was dropped, fueled public opposition to Congress’ practice of “earmarking” — the designation of pet projects in legislation.

The transportation bill is likely to be loaded with earmarks despite the controversy. Oberstar told House members to send their requests — he prefers to call them “high priority projects” — to the committee, which plans to hold a hearing Tuesday on the requests.

Still unclear is where Congress will find the money to pay for such a gargantuan plan — it would be nearly double the current $268 billion highway construction program, enacted in 2005. That program, which Congress debated for two years before passing, expires Sept. 30.

The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the program, is expected to run out of money this summer.

The pool of money depends on gas taxes, but revenue has dropped dramatically because people are driving less. Congress had to transfer $8 billion from the general treasury last fall to keep highway programs going.

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