As April drew to a close, the lines were being drawn for the summer debate over the next federal transportation act. The current program expires at the end of September. It will pass into history with a single virtue in terms of its service to the American public: it didn’t require a fuel tax increase.
The 2009 bill will be a watershed event in America’s commercial history. If Congress passes another limp-wristed, carryover bill, the continued decline in the efficiency of U.S. roads and bridges will begin to restrict the potential for commercial growth in this country.
So the first and most important element in the new bill is whether or not Congress and the Obama Administration will be willing to increase funding for the program.
While funding is the single most important issue in the new federal program, there are many other issues with real importance to the construction community. Here are a few key ones.
· Project streamlining. Congress and the Bush Administration made progress in streamlining the process from the time a project is funded and approved to the time work actually begins. We need to continue improvement in this area.
· Program simplification. Former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters recommended that the number of separate accounts in the federal highway program be reduced from a couple dozen to a handful or so, giving the states far more latitude in how much they invest in new road construction, bridges, maintenance and the like. If adopted, this concept should reduce inter-governmental red tape and improve the overall efficiency of the highway program.
· Matching funds. No one is talking about it publicly, but informed stakeholders in the federal program like the state DOTs and the heavy construction industry should be floating the idea to Congress that for the first year or two of the new act, requirements for state matching funds be relaxed or modified. While the traditional matching funds requirement makes some sense in normal economic times, the severity of our current recession has left many states unable to meet matching funds obligations.
· Earmarks. The thousands of Congressional earmarks attached to the last transportation bill, including the infamous bridge to nowhere, gave the federal highway program a black eye with the press, the public and conservative politicians. Congressional leaders have pledged to make sure earmarked projects meet new standards for ethics and accountability.
The Obama’s Administration’s FY 2010 budget is non-committal on the issue of transportation funding. It calls for a six-year contract authority of $312 billion in the new transportation act – essentially, a carry-over program – but it also allows for higher spending if new revenue sources are found.
While no leader has emerged to champion the cause of a significant fuel tax increase to expand America’s highway program, the good news is, no one has explicitly shut the door on it, either. Not even Congress’ fiscal conservatives.