Funding talks on The Hill lay groundwork for reauthorization

(Photo: Adam Fagen / Flickr)(Photo: Adam Fagen / Flickr)

Debriefing a number of contractors and agency folk who spent most of the daylight hours yesterday talking to politicians on The Hill last night was not a very uplifting experience.

They had gone to talk to members of Congress who are influential–some big-time, some not so–in funding transportation infrastructure. And most said they heard what they expected to hear from the members: nothing overly negative, but nothing to get excited about either.

A common theme they heard was that reauthorization is 16 months away, so we have time. Another was that virtually no politicians are prepared to talk about funding options, including gas tax hikes, but have mastered the doublespeak of “the are a number of options we are looking at.” Don’t ask what they are; you won’t get much of an answer.

The Hill visits were part of the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC) Fly-In, and the idea was to make sure our elected representatives in both chambers understand the problems, issues and urgency of funding. They do, to some extent, already know this. But adding some depth and local color is a valuable use of Hill visit time.

TCC is a partnership of 29 national associations and construction unions founded in 1996.

There seems to be a general (i.e on the Hill and elsewhere) acknowledgement at the moment that other issues are center stage and will stay there for some time (how long is an important variable). Among those issues are immigration, IRS scandals and debt, and lingering on the scene is Benghazi. Transportation is on the second tier if we are lucky. Basically, these visits are designed to keep it there. They are not particularly efficient; Congress members with any experience are adept at handshaking, head nodding and saying something that sounds like fire but tastes like warm milk.

So do the visits do any good? One very wise contractor from Kansas gave me what I think is the best succinct answer: “We probably didn’t make a lot of headway, but not to go is suicide.”

That is, if you don’t keep the transportation funding issue in front of the members’ minds with as much of a display of public support and sound argument as possible, it will slip down the list of priorities and some other issue will rise and take the members’ focus and attention. Then, when crunch time comes next year, the battle is already being lost.

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It happened as good ol’ SAFETEA-LU lurched into its last days and began its cycle of extensions. I think the Kansas contractor is exactly right; it could be catastrophic for the industry to let funding slip down the members’ priority list. Keeping it on every member’s agenda, even if it is just idling in place, allows us to ramp up the pressure as reauthorization talks begin in earnest, probably early in the new year. If nothing is done until then–if no visits are made–in efforts made when needed (everything from getting members out to job sites, more Hill visits, email campaigns, media campaigns and so on) we will find it much harder to gain traction.

I’m also fairly sure that most members have some sort of radar, or employ radar-enhanced staff, to assess just which issues are most important (to them and to the country, and hopefully sometimes they coincide).

So keep contacting your Congressional delegation, keep reminding them that the time is coming when they will have to act. Keep reminding them of the jobs at stake and the failing bridges that need to be fixed. Remind them of the cost of congestion in their districts or the cost of repairing vehicles that are bouncing over bad roads–the skyrocketing cost of repairing roads and bridges if they are left for more years before the work is begun. When it comes time to build momentum, we will have a foundation to make it effective momentum.

Another factor is the way MAP-21 was put together. Reforms were made–good reforms, widely-supported reforms. From what I heard this week those reforms may be expanded and new ones may be put in place. Given the positive reaction to the MAP-21 reforms, I’d say it’s likely and they will generally meet with bipartisan support in both houses and have White House support too. What that means is the second half of the puzzle–the one that got such short shrift in MAP-21 (yes, FUNDING)–will be the main battleground.

And as my Kansas contractor pointed out, if you don’t keep pressing, our funding in any new legislation next year may be as miserable as MAP-21.

Catch up on coverage from this week’s TCC Fly-in in Washington, D.C.
Over the Top: Funding some D.C. tunnel work
Market report: Bridges good, pavement not so good
Market report: Weather factors into low highway market
Boxer: Transportation funding is “patriotic issue”
Shuster talks transportation funding, earmarks at TCC Fly-in
LaHood: Expect major transportation infrastructure announcement from Obama
Rahall: 2014 reauthorization to be different from MAP-21
Inhofe: Obama’s $500 billion to $600 billion reauthorization bill “not going to happen”