OPINION: Recovery Act success a foundation for jobs, for America

The success of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the promise of the HIRE Act mean good news for our nation’s infrastructure and our efforts to put Americans back to work.

The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released the latest data on state investments under the Recovery Act last week. Every Recovery Act dollar for highway, transit, and wastewater infrastructure formula programs is approved or under contract. Two-thirds of these funds are being put to good use on projects that are underway, and more than 3,770 projects are already completed.

The numbers speak for themselves. Of the $38.1 billion available for highway, transit, and wastewater infrastructure formula investments under the Recovery Act, 15,377 projects worth $31.6 billion, or 83 percent, have been put out to bid, as of Jan. 31, 2010. Within this total, 13,397 projects, totaling $28 billion, are under contract. Across the nation, 3,770 projects are completed and work has begun on an additional 7,813 projects totaling $21.7 billion.

These projects have created or sustained 330,000 family-wage, on-project jobs across the nation. Total employment, including direct, indirect, and induced jobs, surpasses 1 million. The Transportation Committee further calculates that the sum of $279 million in unemployment checks has been avoided as a result of the direct jobs created by this bill, and the workers who hold these direct jobs have paid nearly $353 million in federal taxes.

These Recovery Act funds, however, will soon be exhausted, but there is good news there as well. The House and Senate are in the final stages of approving H.R. 2847, the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act.

The HIRE Act extends the surface transportation programs through Dec. 31, 2010, and provides $63.5 billion for these programs for fiscal 2010 and $77 billion over the entire 15-month period.

Providing 15 months of contract authority for these programs will allow states, metropolitan planning organizations, and public transit agencies to have the necessary resources to begin large projects and plan beyond the month-to-month horizon of continuous extensions.

This bill provides an enormous increase — $21 billion — over the current, reduced funding levels found in the Continuing Resolution, and restores the $8.7 billion rescission that occurred on Sept. 30, 2009, as required in SAFETEA-LU.

The bill also ensures the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund through fiscal 2011. It restores the $19.5 billion of interest forgone since 1998, allows the Highway Trust Fund to collect interest like all other trust funds. It also restructures fuel tax exemptions to be supported by the General Fund, not the Trust Fund.

Still, the positive results of the Recovery Act and the increased funding and deadline extension in the HIRE Act are no substitute for a long-term surface transportation authorization bill, and these short-term bills do not address badly needed policy and organizational reforms. The challenges facing the nation’s surface transportation system cannot be addressed by making simple alterations to the existing set of programs.

Last summer, the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit marked up a Committee print of the “Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009,” a bill that would invest $500 billion in highways, bridges, transit, highway and motor carrier safety, and high-speed rail projects over six years. The Act provides a bold new vision and greater accountability, as well as the investments necessary to ensure that Americans have a surface transportation system to meet their needs in the 21st century. 

The bill refocuses the federal role in highway and public transit investment by consolidating or terminating more than 75 programs. It also restructures the U.S. Department of Transportation to require intermodal planning and decision-making, ensure that projects are planned and completed in a timely manner, and ensure that DOT programs advance environmental sustainability and the livability of communities.

Furthermore, the bill requires transparency, accountability and oversight, which will provide taxpayers with a better, more measurable return on their investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, announced last week that she will also move a long-term authorization bill this year, using the Surface Transportation Authorization Act as a framework. That is encouraging news, and I look forward to working with Sen. Boxer and all of my House and Senate colleagues to complete action on a new authorization bill by the end of the year.

This must be our primary goal, and I hope that passage of the extension in the HIRE Act will enable us to redirect our focus to enactment of a transformational, multi-year surface transportation authorization.

Oberstar chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.