Much of the debate (if you can call it that) on a new highway bill has focused on the amount of funding that will be available for transportation infrastructure. Argument over the length of new legislation has also had its share of the sound and the fury, and, in the House, so have moves to fill future Highway Trust Fund coffers with money brought in from new oil and gas exploration. And, of course, in the House there was the short-lived move to slide transit funding out of the equation.
But any new legislation will contain some significant, bipartisan, yes bipartisan, reforms in the way this funding works. And it might be easy to overlook them as we focus so intensely on money. Certainly an inadequately funded bill will be a major problem, and whichever way you look at it this bill will be underfunded in terms of the existing needs of the system.
In both chambers, there was general agreement on what needed to change. Take a couple of examples: States would have more say and more flexibility in deciding how money was spent and what work was prioritized. Lengthy environmental reviews would be done concurrently instead of consecutively to take lost years out of the process. A laundry list of different offices and departments at transportation HQ in Washington would be melted into a smaller, more manageable bureaucracy, getting rid of major overlap and procedural roadblocks. Federal Highway Administration chief Victor Mendez and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood have pledged to make these reforms work.
Few people on what we might call opposite sides of a fence work together as well as highway and bridge contractors and the government agencies responsible for those bridges and highways. If a bill squeaks through, there needs to be a lot of work done to ensure that the reforms are implemented as quickly as possible. That won’t be fast, but in the spirit of the changes, unnecessary delays need to be avoided.
Perhaps I fear in an election year that once a bill is passed it could easily be forgotten. Remember how we forgot much of the feeling of intense urgency that followed the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis? Job one after a bill arrives is to set in motion the machinery that will make these reforms work.
And now for something completely different: You’ll notice with this, and the next few issues, that we’re working on changes to our look and how we deliver information and ideas to you. Let me know what you think. I’d like to look at some of your ideas and see how they might work for us.