More than nine months after laws authorizing funding for federal highway and surface transportation programs expired, House and Senate legislators still can’t agree on a final bill to send, to the president.
Since the original expiration date Sept. 30, 2003, Congress has passed a series of extensions to keep money flowing to highway and related transportation programs and to keep thousands of government transportation employees on the job.
The current extension expired July 31.
That time pressure coupled with upcoming elections means one thing — tensions are running high among transportation leaders on Capitol Hill. That’s because members are struggling, at times on the edge of anger, to find common ground on the overall price tag for the final bill.
A case in point: Sen. Harry Reid, D-NV, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, had the following conversation while discussing the overall funding for the bill: “I say to my friend (Congressman) Don Young, he’s a good man ..., but on this issue, he’s lost his pizzazz.”
To which Rep. Don Young, R-AK, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, replied: “If you think I’ve lost my pizzazz, you can kiss my you-know-what.”
That’s pretty racy stuff — leaving aside Vice President Cheney’s recent comments to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, which occurred during a terse discussion on the Senate floor about politics, religion and money. Eventually, Cheney told Leahy to “f - - - off.”
As far as transportation goes, the basic issue is that both sides have not been able to make much progress due to the standoff over funding levels. The House passed version calls for $275 billion to $284 billion in spending (depending on who’s doing the math) and the Senate wants $318 billion.
Tolling on interstates
Along with the overall price tag, conferees must agree on hundreds of other provisions, including many that affect the trucking industry. The issue of expanding states’ abilities to toll interstate highways has not yet been discussed officially, but is easily one of the most contentious issues up for debate.
Coalitions representing state departments of transportation, road building companies, environmental groups and public transportation authorities are lobbying hard for acceptance of the Senate’s provisions that allow for widespread tolling of interstates and other highway facilities.
Though they say publicly that they are interested in “improving highways across America,” the real intentions are a bit less noble — it’s money, money, money. More money for state DOTs, more money for construction profits, more money for bike trails and more money for commuter trains and buses.
And as readers of Land Line well know, highway users already pay more than their fair share for our nation’s highways, and Highway Trust Fund money is already being used for projects promoted by these coalitions.
Many of the projects have little to nothing to do with highways.
OOIDA and other highway-user organizations have been working just as hard to convince the highway bill conferees to accept the House’s FAST Fees language (the “Kennedy Amendment”) or accept no tolling provision at all.
Congressional officials say they regularly hear from truckers on the tolling issue, but the fact remains that those wanting more tolls currently hold the upper hand. A review of voting records and informal polling indicates that if a decision on the tolling provisions were made today, the majority of senators and representatives on the conference would support the devastating language in the Senate bill.
So what needs to happen next?
With the July 31 expiration of the extension of highway program funding and a mammoth task in front of it, Congress will most likely have to pass yet another short-term extension (the fifth since last year).
Lawmakers went home for their summer district work period at the end of July and aren’t scheduled to return until the first week of September. During this time, they will attend political conventions and campaign in their home districts.
Meanwhile, various highway bill scenarios could play out after that time, but House and Senate leaders will be doing whatever they can to get the bill done in September.
What OOIDA members can do now
It is extremely important for truckers to make their voices heard now on the expansion of highway tolls. Write and call your national elected officials at their Washington and/or local offices as soon as possible.
Letters are very effective, but phone calls are also important. With lawmakers having to screen all their mail these days, letters take a little longer to get to their offices. Faxing a copy of your letter to your lawmaker before dropping it in the mailbox will ensure it gets to them in a timely manner.
This is also an excellent time to talk directly with your elected officials in their district offices and at event appearances (fairs, parades, charity auctions, etc.)
If you are not certain who your lawmakers are, phone the OOIDA Membership Department and they’ll look up the information for you. The toll-free number is 1-800-444-5791. If you know who your senators and representative are but don’t have contact information, you can visit www.congress.org, www.house.gov or www.senate.gov.
You can also call the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. If you’re home, try looking in the blue government pages in your local phone book, or call local information.
Tolling provisions à la Clint Eastwood
The GOOD — Section 1603 of the HOUSE bill (HR 3550) - FAST Fees program (Kennedy’s amendment).
The BAD — Section 1609 of the SENATE bill (S 1072) — the Interstate Rehabilitation & Reconstruction Pilot Program — the FAST Lanes Program (not Kennedy’s version) — the Variable Pricing Pilot Program.
The UGLY — Sections 1604 and 1605 of the HOUSE bill (HR 3550) — indirectly set the stage for expansion of interstate tolling.
More information about the highway bill and tolling provisions can be found at www.ooida.com.
Rod Nofziger can be reached at email@example.com