Nation on hold while congressional gridlock continues on highway bill

In the 56 years since the Interstate Highway System was established, under a Republican president and a Democratic-controlled Congress, there have been only 10 surface transportation reauthorization measures. As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for 35 years — my entire tenure in Congress — I have been intricately involved in crafting six of those bills. 

I can attest that none of those previous measures generated anything nearing the controversy, rancor and partisanship created by the surface transportation bill produced by Republicans in this session. None so steeply retrenched investment in America. None so precariously undermined safety. And since 1982, during the administration of former President Reagan, none of those bills so abandoned public transit.

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I have been sorely disappointed to see the transportation authorization process this year hijacked in a misguided effort to score political points rather than to produce a viable public law. Unfortunately, as long as the process is driven by the political extremes, we will do nothing to alleviate the congestion that continues to cripple the economy in California. Nothing to fix the bridges that are in disrepair in West Virginia. Nothing to solve the fact that trains are traveling on outdated tracks in New Jersey. Nothing to address the freight that is being trapped on turnpikes because our arteries of commerce are choked by a transportation system ill-suited for a country that is leading the global economy.

The nation is now in a holding pattern, while vitally needed programs are on the verge of expiring on March 31. States and local communities are hanging in limbo, waiting for the House to get its act together. And time is running out. Meanwhile, more than 25 million Americans are unable to find work, only working part time, or have given up hope of finding a job. 

At this critical time for our nation, in the early stages of an economic recovery, we ought to be doing all that we can to support the creation of American jobs. Toward that end, we should be passing a robust highway bill that will improve our infrastructure while creating jobs, and we ought to ensure that our highway investments keep American jobs on American soil. Unfortunately, we are failing on both scores.

Last July, workers at a Chinese state-owned company in Shanghai loaded four 5,300-ton steel modules onto a ship bound for California, to complete the largest public works project in that state’s history.

These enormous steel structures embarked on a 22-day journey across the Pacific Ocean as part of a $6.3 billion project — replacing a portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. In total, 43,000 tons of steel for that project, paid for by American taxpayers, bear the “Made in China” stamp.

We are literally buying bridges and other major transportation infrastructure from our foreign competitors, outsourcing innovation and capabilities that could and should be fostered and strengthened in the United States.

Sadly, the bill that was reported out of the House Transportation Committee was not only vastly underfunded, it also missed a major opportunity to fix gaping loopholes in “Buy America” requirements — loopholes being exploited by foreign competitors, like China, who are poaching American jobs.

We need to remedy that and ensure that projects financed by U.S. taxpayers create and sustain well-paying jobs right here at home. 

Fortunately, and somewhat ironically, the Senate — a body that has, to some extent by design, slowed the legislative process to near total halt in recent years — actually mustered the bipartisanship and sense of duty to pass a two-year highway bill, one that goes much further than the partisan House bill to address the flaws of current Buy America requirements.

While I would much prefer to see both bodies reach consensus on a longer term measure that gives the states needed certainty to address their highway needs, I stand ready to help pass the Senate bill. 

With millions of Americans desperately seeking work, we cannot afford to linger in this partisan intransigence now hanging over our Capitol. Ten times in the past, we have found a way to bridge the political divide and pass surface transportation bills that have helped to make our nation strong and vibrant. We must set aside political score-keeping and put the welfare of America and American citizens first. The Senate has provided a path forward that we, in the House, should follow. We must do our jobs so that the American people can go back to theirs. 

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


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