Broad coalition leans on Congress to pass transportation spending bill

Congress is under pressure from an unusually wide range of industries and groups to pass a spending bill for transportation.

The push to get a bill passed by March 31, when current legislation for infrastructure expires, has made for strange bedfellows. Supporters include the hotel, food and retail industries, hospitals, trade associations for engineers and cement-makers, local governments and even religious and civil-rights groups. 

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Advocates say the breadth of the support illustrates the importance of highways, bridges, ports and public transit to the U.S. economy.

“The bill itself speaks to every facet of American life. It speaks to the needs of commuters, to the needs of business, to job-creation issues, to congestion issues, to air-pollution issues and to safety issues,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department. 

“That, combined with the fact that the general public wants this to get done, is going to push this bill forward,” he said.

But despite the broad lobbying push, the passage of long-term transportation legislation is far from a sure thing. Momentum for a new measure has almost completely stalled in the House, where even a plan from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to pare down a five-year, $260 billion transportation bill into an 18-month version was met with opposition from majority Republicans.

The Senate’s counter to the House measure, a bill that would spend $109 billion over the next two years, has also run into trouble, though Democrats in the upper chamber say they hope to limit debate on amendments they have derided as non-germane to the road and transit issues with a cloture vote this week.

If Congress fails to pass a transportation bill, it won’t be for lack of support outside the Capitol. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Wytkind’s parent organization, the AFL-CIO, are two groups that are setting aside differences to fight for transit funding.

The Chamber says improving the nation’s infrastructure will help its members become competitive in the global marketplace. For the union group, a bill means jobs for members in a slow economy.

“On this bill [infrastructure] we’ve always worked with groups that we would not otherwise agree with. We work on both sides of the aisle and with multiple interests,” Wytkind said. “There’s nothing unique about this year.”

Alex Herrgott of the Chamber said passing an infrastructure bill is essential for the economy on the whole. Eighty-four percent of our economy “relies on transportation,” he told The Hill.

“If you don’t want the economy to recover, we can afford to continue doing nothing,” Herrgott said.

A number of large coalitions are lobbying on the reauthorization drive, including Transportation for America (T4A) and Americans for Transportation Mobility. T4A, which formed almost three years ago, represents groups from AARP to the Real Estate Roundtable.

“The members came together because [transportation] is such an important issue that touches so many different lives,” T4A’s David Goldberg said.

Engineering companies are pushing the legislation, too. Getting the highway bill passed would mean putting “the engineering community and the partners in the construction industry back to work,” said Steve Hall of the American Council of Engineering Companies.

Perhaps no one has more at stake in the transportation fight than the cement industry. Portland Cement Association’s Greg Scott said the bill represents approximately “25 percent of the market for cement and concrete directly tied to the federal government.”

Retailers, including chain restaurants, also have skin in the game, given that so much of their business is affected by the speed of shipping. 

“Retailers are among the nation’s largest shippers, moving hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise through the nation’s ports, railroads and highways each year,” David French of the National Retail Federation said in a February statement.

“The condition of the transportation system and its ability to handle cargo quickly and efficiently are vital to retailers’ businesses,” French said.

Transportation is also crucial for hotels. The better the country’s system, the easier it will be for domestic and international travelers, Eric Reller of the American Hotel & Lodging Association told The Hill.

Religious groups, like the Jewish Federations of North America, are lobbying on the bill for their constituents. In the Federations’ case, they are lobbying for Jewish seniors and collaborating with other groups with similar agendas.

“If you’re working on aging or disability, you’re just making sure that the senior transportation community is a piece of this,” associate vice president for public policy Stephan Kline told The Hill.

Civil rights groups are working to ensure that public transportation funds remain in place. Many minority groups, individuals with disabilities and seniors rely on these forms of transportation to be mobile in their daily lives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Scott Simpson explained.

Even food and agriculture groups, from grocers to fruit and vegetable processors and growers, have pressured Congress to pass legislation. Fifteen food processing groups, including the American Beverage Association, which boasts members like Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottling companies, sent a letter to Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) at the end of January in support of a highway reauthorization bill. Mica is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Several other entities, from hospitals to cities, also listed transportation reauthorization on their lobbying reports last year.

Transportation advocates agreed that the vast support should help push a bill over the finish line in a year when very little legislation is likely to move through Congress.

“A bridge doesn’t repair itself. A highway that doesn’t meet demand doesn’t start to meet demand on its own. A mass transit system doesn’t start to meet those growing demands on its system without additional help,” Wytkind told The Hill.

“The amount of political work surrounding these issues is only going to grow. “

Keith Laing contributed.