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Builders rally for highway money

By Sean Ryan

The federal government will hemorrhage $11.1 billion in 2010 highway money if Congress doesn’t pass a bill by Sunday to temporarily plug the leak.

Wisconsin has $200.7 million at stake in the Congressional debate over jobs bills that would prevent the $11.1 billion reduction in the nationwide highway program.

The federal transportation spending law expired in September and so did a provision that shored up the highway program by letting it collect interest on money in the budget. Although the highway program received the interest in 2009, that will not happen in 2010 without a new law.

Without the law, the federal highway program will receive only $30.7 billion in 2010, compared with $41.9 billion in 2009.

That prospect has construction associations rallying around a U.S. Senate jobs bill that would prevent the decrease and give the highway program an additional $19.5 billion, said Brian Deery, senior director of highways and transportation for the Associated General Contractors of America.

“That’s essentially,” he said, “what this is cleaning up — the mess that Congress has left us by not passing a reauthorization bill.”

Based on Wisconsin’s share of the federal budget in 2009, the state would receive only $548.9 million in 2010 — compared with $749.6 million in 2009 — if the jobs bill does not pass.

The odds are slim Congress will let that happen, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. However, he said, the potential losses demonstrate how much is at stake for the construction industry.

The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on its jobs bill Wednesday. A bill passed by the House of Representatives would shore up the $11.1 billion and give the highway program an additional $47 billion for highway projects.

The difference in extra money in the Senate and House bills essentially is the difference between paying for work already approved — the Senate bill — and stimulating more projects — the House bill, said Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

“There would be some more money,” he said of the Senate bill, “but there’s not additional investment levels. What it does is help fill the hole in the Highway Trust Fund. There is no additional investment like in the House bill.

“What they’re doing is tinkering around the edges of fixing the Highway Trust Fund.”

WATCH A VIDEO OF JOHN HORSLEY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF STATE HIGHWAY AND TRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS, SPEAKING IN SUPPORT OF FEDERAL JOBS LEGISLATION

In 2009, construction groups were pushing to get a new transportation authorization bill passed to permanently solve the highway program’s financial problems, but now the emphasis is on stopping the bleeding, Traas said.

The Senate and House bills would extend transportation program financing to late 2010, and the extra time must be spent hammering out a reauthorization package that guarantees work for years, not months, said Nick Yaksich, vice president of global public affairs for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

“There’s a menu of funding options, so I don’t think there’s any rabbit to pull out of the hat to take care of this,” he said. “It just takes the political will, and that’s difficult before the November elections.”

Deery said the Senate’s vote Monday to break an impasse and vote on the jobs bill is encouraging, but there is a lot of work to be done before Sunday to get something passed.

“If they don’t pass a bill by Sunday,” he said, “there are major ramifications for the highway program in the short term and the long term.”

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