Congress must pass long-term transportation, jobs measures

As President Obama prepares to address the nation this evening, America continues to face a difficult economy and high unemployment.  

The president and congressional Democrats fumbled when they controlled both Congress and the White House in their misguided attempts to strengthen the economy, build our nation’s infrastructure and get people working. They tried to sell the $787 billion stimulus as a jobs creator. They tried to bait and switch snail-speed trains as high-speed rail. And they were rudely reminded that red tape prevents projects from being shovel-ready.  

They failed to authorize long-term aviation and surface transportation measures or set policies that would allow states and local governments to undertake major infrastructure projects, leaving millions of workers behind.

Congress cannot repeat these mistakes. We must pass long-term aviation and transportation bills.

These programs are vital to getting the economy moving, but they have not been updated in years. Instead, they have operated under a series of stopgap measures. Since the last long-term Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) law expired in 2007, Congress has had to pass 22 extensions, 17 of these when Democrats controlled Congress.  Highways and transit programs have been extended eight times since 2009, six times under the Democrats. This is a poor way to set national transportation policy and has prevented Congress from passing much-needed reforms.

State transportation agencies and airport operators, for example, depend on multi-year authorizations because they ensure the funding predictability necessary to plan large-scale projects. Without this stability, states are unwilling to take on many major projects that can provide Americans with long-term employment.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Republicans have initiated a jobs proposal, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, that will ensure job creation, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and provide a long overdue overhaul of federal transportation programs.

This proposal will fund surface transportation programs at current levels and provide a new revenue stream for infrastructure through increased domestic energy production.  This key jobs bill will also focus on critical reforms.

In order to streamline the transportation project approval process, the proposal will delegate more authority to states, establish hard deadlines for federal agencies to make decisions and cut the amount of federal red tape currently involved in getting projects built. 

Cutting this cumbersome review process time in half while still ensuring the proper environmental protections will allow improvements to move forward with much greater efficiency.

Currently, there are more than 100 federal surface transportation programs, many of which are duplicative or were created over the years to address issues beyond the original programmatic goals.

This proposal will dramatically consolidate and reduce the number of programs and refocus the Highway Trust Fund on its original core functions and programs that are truly in the federal interest, primarily for highway and bridge improvements.  This proposal will also contain no earmarks.

States will be given more flexibility to determine their greatest transportation needs and priorities, with fewer mandates coming from bureaucrats in Washington. Less federal bureaucracy will translate into less waste, and this will help increase the value of available resources. 

In order to better leverage these resources, we will encourage more private sector participation in financing and building our infrastructure. Private sector interest in transportation is considerable, and while public-private partnerships cannot address all of the nation’s needs, important policy changes can significantly augment the amount of resources the United States is able to invest in job-creating projects.

Congress must also adopt reforms for freight and passenger rail programs and reduce bureaucratic impediments so these programs can work better.  

The nation’s ports must be prepared to accommodate growing international trade and larger container ships, and lawmakers must address these needs and provide programmatic reforms as well.

Congress will also complete action soon on an FAA reauthorization measure that will include a number of reforms necessary to modernize our air traffic control system, enhance aviation safety, provide upgrades at many of the nation’s airports and create an environment that allows expansion and job creation in the commercial aviation industry.  

Transportation has always been essential to a healthy economy.  With these proposals to improve the nation’s infrastructure and reform federal programs, Congress has the ability to set a new course for America. By making government less burdensome, cutting red tape and giving states the ability to direct funds to projects they deem appropriate, we can increase employment and provide an economic boost that will truly help strengthen the state of our union.

Mica is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.