Long-term bill would fuel economy

Despite all the heated rhetoric in Washington as one side tries to outdo the other in demonstrating their commitment to cutting the budget, these unlikely alliances are forming because many agree that a strong, reliable and consistent federal investment in our nation’s transportation infrastructure will create American jobs and keep our economy moving throughout the 21st century.

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Most of my colleagues agree that we need to pass a long-term surface transportation bill to give states and local communities greater stability and certainty when it comes to planning transportation infrastructure. Many would also agree that we are currently significantly underfunding investments in transportation infrastructure, jeopardizing jobs, productivity, quality of life and economic competitiveness. 

The Department of Transportation (DOT) estimates we must increase our investment by an additional $27 billion per year to simply sustain highway conditions; an additional $96 billion per year is needed to make all cost-beneficial highway improvements and eliminate the bridge backlog. DOT also finds that $15.1 billion annually is needed just to maintain transit conditions, and $21.1 billion yearly would be needed to improve transit conditions.

The Transportation Committee has been conducting a nationwide series of field hearings and listening sessions as we craft a long-term surface transportation bill. One theme we have heard loud and clear is the tremendous uncertainty that is created when Congress fails to enact a multi-year transportation bill large enough to adequately tackle the well-documented backlog of transportation and infrastructure needs.

There will certainly be disagreements about the level of investment and how best to provide stable funding, but everyone loses when we have short-term patches instead of a long-term bill.

Unfortunately, our efforts to create certainty may have suffered a significant setback earlier this year when the Republican leadership changed the rules of the House regarding the Highway Trust Fund. The change undid protections that had been crafted through the leadership of former Republican Rep. Bud Shuster (Pa.) to ensure that gas-tax monies would be used to finance transportation investments, and not as a way to mask the size of the federal deficit. I fought side by side with Mr. Shuster for this protection in 1998, and I was disappointed when the Republicans broke the ‘trust’ of the Highway Trust Fund as their first act of the 112th Congress.

I was also disappointed that the House Republicans last month jammed through a spending bill that will destroy more than 300,000 good-paying jobs by gutting investments in transportation that grow our economy.

Certainly we need to tighten our budgetary belt, but it is foolish to slash the job-creating muscle of our budget when we should be trimming the fat. It is popular in Washington to say we are going to “do more with less,” but Congress is going to have to make some really tough decisions to address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure if we are to keep pace with China, India and our other international competitors.

I strongly supported the administration’s plan to invest $556 billion to restore and build a transportation system for the 21st century because I think it’s the appropriate size and scope. I was disappointed that it chose to punt the ball on how to provide the necessary funding, but take it at its word that it will work with Congress to do so. Let’s be honest with ourselves — there is no free lunch. Addressing our transportation needs will require political will and courage to tackle the challenges and realities that have been avoided for too long.

America can continue to lead the worldwide economy and win the future, but we must at least invest as much in ourselves as our competitor nations are investing in their own futures. Our competitors aren’t waiting; we must not wait any longer. Crafting and passing a new surface transportation bill that addresses our transportation needs sooner, rather than later, must be a priority.

Rahall is ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.