109th Must Address Overdue Highway Bill

Posted December 3, 2004 at 12:16pm

Both the House and the Senate passed major national infrastructure bills in the soon-to-be-concluded 108th Congress.

Both bills addressed measurable, identifiable needs throughout our national transportation network, without regard to parochial interests or state boundaries. This, of course, is the basis for having a federal program in the first place.

Both bills sought to modernize our transportation network, increase technology utilization and reduce the toll of highway accidents down from our unacceptably high levels, which cause approximately 42,000 annual fatalities.

Importantly, considering Federal Highway Administration estimates that every $1 billion invested translates into approximately 47,500 jobs, both bills would also mean millions of jobs.

But, for reasons ranging from the practical to the political, Congress and the administration were unable to finalize a bill. This forced Congress to extend the previous authorization for the sixth time since September 2003 to avoid shutting down various Transportation Department agencies and cutting off funding to the cash-starved states.

It now falls to the 109th Congress to address this overdue and sorely needed bill next year.

Much has changed since Congress last passed a major surface transportation bill in 1998. Our jobs picture has softened due to shifting industrial output and an uneven economy. We face terrorism challenges, at home and abroad. A once booming surplus has vanished, replaced by the largest deficit in our country’s history.

Given these pressures and others, some question whether we should increase investment in our infrastructure, or whether states should continue to receive federal funding based on their respective needs — rather than on the basis of their gas tax contributions to the Highway Trust Fund, the source for federal transportation funding.

I say, without hesitation, we need to significantly increase our investment in this critical national program.

I say, further, we need to do it immediately at the outset of the 109th Congress, before it gets lost in the shuffle behind deficit reduction and other legislative initiatives.

Since 1982, the U.S. population has risen by 24 percent. But, during that time, highway capacity has increased by only 6 percent. Numerous studies reveal that an alarming percentage of our highways and bridges are now in “poor” or “mediocre” condition. Likewise, increased mass transportation funding is increasingly necessary to reduce both congestion and air pollution related to auto emissions.

The only way to adequately address these needs is to pass legislation sufficiently funding and upgrading our federal surface transportation program.

Certainly, the federal government can’t do everything for everybody. But there are some things that the states simply cannot do on their own. Since the time of the Romans, one of those things has been infrastructure.

A sufficiently funded bill — preferably funded at least to the $318 billion level that the Senate passed — will do several important things, which are needed now as much as ever, and which are within our reach.

It will fund projects in each of the 50 states. Likewise, it will fund projects spanning across multiple states; we sorely need to beef up our north-south corridors to accommodate increased goods transportation relating to NAFTA — one example of this is the I-73/74 corridor, which will run from the Great Lakes to South Carolina, passing through many states and Congressional districts, including the one that I represent in southern West Virginia.

Enacting legislation will also fund good-paying, reliable jobs at a time when we continue to experience the decline of blue-collar, private sector employment opportunities.

A critical component of the federal transportation program has been, and must continue to be, its truly national scope. States requiring greater federal investment — such as my home state, one of the most difficult states to construct roads in due to its mountainous terrain and challenging weather patterns — rely on federal backing in accordance with their greater needs.

For this reason, I, along with many of my colleagues from states bearing greater needs, support the efforts of the F.A.I.R. Alliance (Fair Alliance for Intermodal Reinvestment).

Each state currently receives a minimum rate of return equaling 90.5 percent of each dollar invested in the Highway Trust Fund, and each state is also guaranteed a minimum dollar apportionment. Although some states complain that they pay more into the federal program than they receive in return, we must continue to serve needs where they most exist.

As with other federal programs, such as defense, agriculture and space, where certain individual states may benefit but the larger purpose is national in scope, federal transportation funding must remain focused on our national interest. We tried a states-first concept in this country to address matters that are truly national in scope — the Articles of Confederation, which, thankfully, we quickly abandoned because it was so inefficient.

The truth is that the only way to return more gas tax funding to all states, while continuing to adequately fund unique needs in individual states, is to fund the bill at a level sufficient to satisfy all parties.

The 20th century was a time of unprecedented growth. The rise of federal infrastructure investment paralleled and, in many instances, drove this growth.

Every day, hundreds of millions of Americans rely on our roads and mass transportation network to commute to work, attend school, go to the doctor’s office, or travel for vacation or the holidays — often across interstate boundaries. Two-thirds of all commodities transported in this country are moved by road — including gasoline, which, despite its recent sharp price increase, still remains more affordable here than almost anywhere else in the world due to our superior road network. Massive military mobilization, or rapid emergency response — demonstrated on a large scale on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — are also readily achievable due to our network.

But to maintain these strengths, and to meet current and future needs, we must enact a new transportation and jobs bill as quickly as possible. It is long overdue.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on highways, transit and pipelines.