“The unemployment situation is bad, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t get this straightened out,” said Jack Basso of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “The construction industry is at 14.2 percent, and the actual job numbers are going down.”
In addition to supporting, by one estimate, 2.9 million construction jobs, the proposal is designed to avert an impending funding crisis when the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money in the next fiscal year.
Diplomacy required that the thick document delivered by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) be called a proposal rather than a bill, to indicate that it was negotiable. In fact, it was a bill passed by the Senate that they said had been modified to incorporate some issues raised by the House.
“It’s an offer that reflects a lot of their comments,” Boxer said after she and Inhofe visited the office of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.).
She declined to release the proposal. Mica spokesman Justin Harclerode said, “We are taking a look at that proposal and will discuss it with our conferees.”
The transportation bill has provided a case study of a dysfunctional Congress, the failures of those who seek to find a middle ground and the struggle House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has faced in capitalizing on his party’s majority in the House.
Old-timers have peppered the debate with reminders that sustaining the nation’s transportation system always had been a bipartisan effort, even when the two parties were at loggerheads on the burning issues of the day.
The current discord is fueled by a pair of changes that dramatically altered the equation.
One was the elimination of earmarks, the pet projects of individual members that proved to the folks back home that the lawmaker was worthy of reelection. The almost 7,000 earmarks in the last long-term transportation bill were the grease that got it approved.
Without earmarks to protect, members have been liberated to wage battle on matters of principle, such as funding for bike and pedestrian programs or how to pay for urban mass transit.
Some see federal transportation funding in terms of highways and bridges, others believe just as strongly that inner-city light rail systems and bike paths are essential to the mix. That conflict helped derail the House transportation bill when GOP members from urban areas defected to defend mass transit.
The elephant in the room has been there ever since the last major transportation bill passed in 2005, and its presence has loomed larger since that bill expired in 2009, leaving state transportation planners who rely on a federal master blueprint to limp along on a series of temporary extensions.