Opposition Vocal on Highway Bill Delay

Joined by his House of Representatives colleague Peter DiFazio (D-OR), and Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), James Oberstar (D-MN) vowed to continue work on a new surface transportation reauthorization bill to replace the current law. The current law, known as SAFETEA-LU for Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, expires on September 30, 2009.

Announcing the Senate committee approval of the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2009, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said the legislation will extend, those programs in SAFETEA-LU which fall within the Environment and Public Words committee’s jurisdiction for an additional 18 months at 2009 funding levels. She noted this is an authorization of about $41 billion in 2010 and another $20.5 billion in 2011.

Oberstar responded, “The Interstate highway system gave America its greatest spurt of economic growth in the history of this country and we need to sustain that growth by sustaining the investment in surface transportation. That is what this [reauthorization] legislation will do. An eighteen-month extension will put us into the next Presidential election cycle. It will take four years to finish, not a year and a half. I know how Congress works. Inertia becomes the enemy of progress. We are ready to move and we should move now.”

Charlie Potts, chairman of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), joined Oberstar's view with his own equally strong words on the issue. Said Potts, “We are appalled by recent calls for—and actions to—postpone enactment of a new surface transportation program investment bill until at least March 2011. I assure you, the only people who might possibly see any benefit from such a delay are right here in Washington, DC. They are certainly not in the real world that I have worked in for over four decades.” Potts delivered that view on July 16 at a congressional hearing.

A less heated view was offered by David Schroyer, chairman of the Agricultural Education Group, who stated, "While we would like to see a new Highway Reauthorization Bill passed as soon as possible, the Agricultural Education Group looks forward to working with all committees in Congress to ensure that a new highway reauthorization bill serves the needs of commercial agricultural transporters who are instrumental in delivering agricultural commodities daily from fields to plants and markets, farm to fork."

Defending the action to extend current funding, Sen. Boxer said, “Most of us believe the next surface transportation bill should and must be transformational, to reflect the need for more sustainable communities, cleaner air, and more transportation options for the American people…But right now, with the Highway Trust Fund running out of funds even as we speak, the most important thing is predictability for this crucial priority.” She said the extension of SAFETEA-LU would send a message of certainty to states and give legislators time to develop a transformational transportation bill.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, called for swift Senate floor action. “Given the current economic recession, it is more important than ever that there are no gaps in the continuous and reliable funding states rely on for their transportation programs—we simply cannot allow Washington to fail,” he said.

In an analysis sent to members, the National Industrial Transportation League (NITL) said, “When confronted several weeks ago with news of a cash shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund by mid-August, the White House signaled its preference to patch over the problem with an infusion of monies from the Treasury’s general fund, and an 18-month extension of the present authorization.” The NITL analysis continued, “Oberstar denounced plans to stall the bill at a press conference held the day before the Senate committee action. Noting that SAFETEA-LU was the product of 12 extensions of then current law, Oberstar said 'I know how Congress works. Inertia becomes the enemy of progress. We are ready to move and we should move now.' The Chairman is still planning a full committee markup, and is awaiting action by the House Ways and Means Committee which meets late [the week of July 20th] to tackle the toughest and as yet unresolved matter: how to pay for construction projects this bill will authorize. Ways and Means is also trying to find a way to pay for health care reform proposals from the White House and several House Committees.” Healthcare is one of the issues overshadowing the highway reauthorization, many feel.

Concluding its analysis, NITL acknowledged that Rep. Oberstar is “a formidable legislator with vast experience in the mechanics of legislation” and reiterated his comment that allowing other issues to postpone action on the six-year surface transportation reauthorization would “be an unfortunate illustration of inertia becoming the enemy of progress.”

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