Advocates for a new highway bill say lawmakers must convince deficit-averse voters that more government spending on infrastructure is in their interest.
The chances of a highway bill moving soon appear slim, in large part because lawmakers are worried about voting in favor of additional spending amid record budget deficits. Worries about the deficit are also causing House leaders headaches in moving a budget resolution and this week’s tax extenders package.
“To say they are anti-spending misses the mark,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) said of voters.
“They are for spending if they can see and feel positive and tangible results for that spending,” Rendell said of American voters. “If we ignore [the nation’s infrastructure], it is going to stop working. It is going to crumble. The American people get it.”
Rendell sees the surface transportation reauthorization bill as “the first battleground” for whether Congress can commit to serious investment in rebuilding the nation’s aging roads and railways.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and centrist Democrats in the House and Senate have been skittish about moving a large bill this year, however, and Rendell thinks the earliest a highway bill could move would be in a possible lame-duck session of Congress after the November elections.
Rendell was in Washington this week advocating for legislation to reduce traffic congestion as well as keep people safe from collapsing bridges. Two weeks ago, the governor testified before Congress on the need for a national infrastructure bank, another measure he says could help win more public support for government spending.
“The most fascinating thing about the polls is the public is willing to pay for infrastructure improvements but they want them to be transparent, they want them to be accountable and they want them to be subject to some sort of merit-based cost-benefit analysis,” Rendell said.
Transportation legislation suffers from a poor reputation from the last highway bill, which included a number of controversial earmarks, including the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that was highlighted during the 2008 presidential race.
Rendell indicated the next highway bill must be transparent.
“That necessarily doesn’t mean the end of earmarks, but it does mean the major projects need to go through some sort of major review,” he said.
Rendell is a co-chairman, with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), of Building America’s Future, a coalition that calls for heavy infrastructure reinvestment.
The coalition’s staff has expanded in Washington to push for more spending. It recently hired two former senior aides in the Clinton White House, Marcia Hale and Sean O’Shea.
Unions have also stepped up their advocacy for projects that could help their members.
The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union of America support legislation introduced by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) this week that would provide $2 billion in emergency funding to public transit agencies. They believe the bill will help keep traffic down and prevent layoffs of transit workers.
The two unions are also running radio ads this Memorial Day Weekend targeting a trio of Republican senators — Scott Brown (Mass.), Richard Shelby (Ala.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) — for support of the Dodd bill.
Unions are also pressing for passage of the tax extenders bill, which includes more than $6 billion in bonds issued by the federal government to support state and local infrastructure projects. Earlier this week the
AFL-CIO issued calls to nearly 100 House districts asking members to support the bill.
“If you’re not for this bill, you’re not for jobs. Period. And please, no more excuses about budget deficits unless you’re willing to make Wall Street pay its fair share to bring it down,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement.
Another labor group, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, has already launched a multi-state campaign to build support for a new highway bill.
For advocates, rebuilding roads and railways is critical to creating jobs as well as insuring safety for people.
Rendell said the costs of ignoring the nation’s crumbling infrastructure are too great, citing recent disasters such as the Minneapolis bridge collapse, Hurricane Katrina and flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Rendell argues improving roads and railways will lead to small improvements in people’s everyday lives. More infrastructure spending could lead to less traffic for commuters, giving parents another half-hour with their children before and after work, Rendell said.
“That means an hour more with their kids. How can you put a price tag on that? The American people get it, and that’s the message we need to drive home with our Congress people,” Rendell said.