Gridlock, on roads and in highway bill talks, marks Memorial Day weekend

Drivers heading south from Washington on Interstate 95 for the start of the traditional summer tourism season this weekend will be driving on what traffic tracking firm INRIX calls the fourth worst highway in America. 

They will also be leaving behind negotiations in Congress on a possible transportation funding bill that some observers say could come to a standstill just as quickly as the traffic they will likely encounter over the long holiday weekend. 

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“We have a huge infrastructure crisis that’s going to be on a lot of people’s minds this weekend and all they see is that Congress can’t do anything about it,” said Parris Glendening, president of the Smart Growth America Leadership Institute and a former governor of Maryland.

“The only thing they’re going to hear, if they are paying attention at all, is that the hill doesn’t have its act together,” Glendening added. “They’re going to be sitting there on I-95, in the gridlock just before and after Richmond, and it’s going to be frustrating.” 

Members of the 47-member committee of lawmakers who have been trying to work out a deal between the House and Senate on transportation spending for the better part of a month have sounded more optimistic. 

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.), told reporters this week “approximately 80 percent” of the bill was non-controversial.

"This is a very substantial report I'm giving you."

Boxer’s committee is attempting to meld a two-year, $109-billion transportation bill that was passed by the Senate with two temporary extensions of current funding that were approved by the House.

Glendening said Friday that he did not think committee members would ultimately be successful. 

“They’ll probably (do) something because it would be such a disaster if they did nothing (but) I think it’s going to more extensions,” he said. “I’m not an expert, but I think it’s going to be a series of extensions through the elections.” 

As the conference committee works to negotiate a compromise, Glendening said he wished Congress would consider the road condition that will greet travelers as they head for beaches and other vacation spots. 

“I understand politics, but I wish people would think about the millions of families who are going to be really inconvenienced this travel weekend,” he said. 

Lawmakers have until June 30 to reach a deal before the scheduled expiration of the current funding for road and transit projects. The House has passed a subsequent extension through the end of September, but that measure would also have to be approved by the Senate to become law. 

Expressing confidence that a deal on the broader transportation bill was within reach, Boxer said members of the conference committee were aware of the nation’s transportation problems. 

“I think you all know what’s at stake, I’ll just sum it up,” Boxer said in her press conference.  “Three million jobs. We already know we have about two million created in our (Senate) bill, and a million would be created because of the expanded (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program.” 

Boxer said the conference committee was making “great progress” on the transportation bill and vowed the panel would complete negotiations before the current funding for road and transit projects runs out.

"The conferees are fully engaged. We will have our conference report ready to circulate among the various colleagues by early June and we intend to have this bill on the desk of the president before June 30," she said.

Chris Plaushin, director of federal relations for the AAA, said his organization shares Boxer’s positive outlook on the highway talks. 

The auto club “continues to be encouraged by what we believe is progress by members of the conference committee,” Plaushin said in a statement to The Hill. “We hope that members will return from Memorial Day break well-rested and ready to complete a transportation bill that benefits the country." 

But even if they do, Innovation NewsBriefs editor Ken Orski said it will not be like the big transportation bills of yesteryear. 

“The federal-aid transportation program will surely continue but there is a growing sense among the lawmakers on Capitol Hill that Congress may be forced to abandon the practice of multi-year authorizations,” Orski, a former transportation staffer in the Nixon and Ford administrations, wrote in a recent blog post.

“The prevailing fiscal and political environment makes it difficult if not impossible to raise hundreds of billions of discretionary dollars in a single legislative package,” he continued. “The fact that the Senate has barely scraped up enough funds for a two-year bill while the House has been unable to come up with any plausible funding for its five-year bill, suggests that the days of multi-year transportation authorizations may indeed be over.”

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