Lack of political will is roadblock to passing long-term spending bill

The existing federal transportation policies, which will be continued under this extension, are outdated and ill equipped to meet the demands of a changing nation. A new authorization bill is needed. Right now, the only impediment to the enactment of a long-term surface transportation authorization is a lack of political will to make the necessary choices and implement the necessary reforms.

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The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, crafted by the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and with the extraordinary input of Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), would invest $450 billion in the nation’s multi-modal surface transportation network, providing long-overdue investments in the nation’s highways, bridges and transit. 

Passing such a bill is critical to delivering urgently needed jobs and building upon earlier efforts to recover from this historic economic recession. This authorization would put Americans to work rebuilding the backbone of the nation’s economy and laying a solid foundation for long-term economic prosperity and growth.

Earlier this year, Congress and President Barack Obama confronted our nation’s economic freefall with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Act included substantial surface transportation investments that have allowed states and metropolitan planning organizations to repair and maintain assets by funding ready-to-go projects. These projects are currently putting Americans back to work and, in the coming months, will create even more job opportunities as the nation’s economy climbs out of this recession.

However, addressing the immediate need for job creation in a time of economic crisis cannot be mistaken as a substitute for passing a long-term surface transportation authorization.  While the Recovery Act provided much-needed funding and enabled states to reduce mounting maintenance backlogs, even this significant investment falls well short of meeting the overall needs of the system. 

Meeting these needs can only be accomplished through the passage of a robust and transformational bill that charts a bold new path for the future of the nation’s transportation network and builds upon the job opportunities created by the Recovery Act.

The Surface Transportation Authorization Act will ensure that we can build ourselves out of this recession project-by-project and job-by-job. Once the nation’s economy has emerged from this downturn, it will rest on infrastructure that is safer, stronger, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable.

Unfortunately, the administration, the Republican leadership, and some in the Senate have suggested an 18-month extension of the existing surface transportation programs. This proposal is unacceptable and would seriously damage the bold efforts that are being undertaken to rescue the economy and invest in the nation’s future. 

Under their approach, in 18 months, we would once again find ourselves with the same difficult decisions, the same outdated and inefficient programs, and even greater investment needs for all modes of the surface transportation system.

Worst of all, failure to pass a long-term surface transportation authorization quickly would force significant uncertainty on states and MPOs that must plan critical projects years in advance and that require long-term funding assurances and stability from their federal partners.

My committee has found that if we were to pass an 18-month extension of existing program funding levels instead of passing the Surface Transportation Authorization Act, more than 379,000 jobs would be lost or foregone over the next 18 months.  This number continues to grow with the prospect of additional short-term extensions that would inevitably follow.

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The difficult decisions that we face today will not be any easier in 18 months, and the American people will pay the price for our inaction through lost jobs, decreased mobility, diminished productivity, and continued high levels of traffic fatalities and injuries.

Action must be taken to maintain the world-class surface transportation system passed down to us by previous generations of Americans, and to build a transportation system worthy of being passed on to future generations.

States, MPOs, and the nation as a whole suffered through 12 extensions over nearly two years before we were able to enact the current transportation authorization in 2005. We cannot let that happen again. The safety, mobility, and quality of life in communities throughout America are at stake, along with a budding economic recovery. Both depend on the leadership and bold vision outlined by this long-term surface transportation authorization — a jobs bill for America of unprecedented proportion.

Oberstar is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.