Final Words: Surface transportation’s pivotal year

The next 8 to 10 months will dictate whether America’s roads and bridges will be able to support a decade of economic growth, or whether they will stifle it by limiting the movement of commercial and consumer traffic to the levels of pre-recessionary 2007.

Early attention has been focused on the Obama economic stimulus package that either had too little money for road and bridges, or far too much, depending on your political dogma. The final numbers for roads came in at about $30 billion – not a solution to America’s festering road problems, but a nice boost to the war on crumbling pavements and inadequate bridges. As important as the money itself is the fact that these funds will not require matching state funds – a critical point because the state are broke and can’t raise more matching funds.

Will the money be spent wisely? Yes. Will it put people in America to work? Yes. And when it’s spent, the American taxpayer will have something to show for it.

That said, the pivotal battle is the one that will be waged over the reauthorization of the federal transportation act starting later this year – early summer, perhaps. The current program which carries the unfortunate acronym SAFETEALU will expire this fall. It was the totally inadequate product of a bitterly divisive debate in Washington, D.C., pitting Congressional moderates against the Bush Administration and Congressional conservatives.

So contentious was the debate that the old program had to be extended for many months beyond its expiration date until lawmakers finally settled on what was essentially a carry-over of the previous transportation act.

Construction lobbyists privately concede that a similar rumble is taking shape over this transportation bill. To spawn the kind of program America needs to remain competitive as a world economic power, most experts believe we need to nearly double our annual investment in road and bridge construction, maintenance and repair. This effort would bring with it an increase in the federal fuel tax of anywhere from 10-cents to 50-cents per gallon, depending on which expert you cite.

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Raising the fuel tax even a dime is dicey politics in the best of times. In fact, we haven’t raised it even a penny in more than 15 years. And 2009 is closer to the worst than the best of times.

Few politicians of either party will see a career benefit in backing a fuel tax increase in these dark times, so they will need all the grass roots pressure from constituents we can raise.

Virtually every construction industry association will be urging its members to get involved in this effort, writing letters, educating employees and local news publications, participating in Congressional fly-ins, even hosting visits from elected officials to get the story out.

Do it! Make a commitment that this is the year you and your employees and colleagues will get active in national politics and help give birth to something our country badly needs.