Washington Insider
Congress missed the bus on new highway bill

By Laura C. O'Neill
OOIDA government affairs counsel


While debates about health care and climate change occupy the attention spans of our nation’s lawmakers, an issue also of critical importance is unfortunately falling through the cracks.

The reauthorization of the highway bill is an event that comes about every five or six years. Among other things, the bill establishes the nation’s surface transportation policies – including highway infrastructure investment priorities and how to pay for them. The bill also provides changes to existing highway safety and trucking safety regulations.

With SAFETEA-LU, the current law, set to expire this fall, you might think Congress would be anxious to repair our nation’s failing infrastructure system as well as replace some of the out-of-date and ineffective regulations. Sadly, Congress and the administration have not recognized highway transportation as a priority and will postpone passing a new bill until 2010, if not later.

Passing a new bill is critical because our existing highway system is slowly slipping into Third World status, but the issue expands beyond international bragging rights.

As you know all too well, it is a matter of safety as exemplified by the tragic I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis a couple of years ago. The U.S. DOT has identified thousands of bridges throughout the country as deficient. With First World U.S. building codes, people being injured or dying in bridge collapses should never occur, particularly when a federal agency is aware of the bridges and roadways that are deteriorating.

In addition, there is currently a push in Congress to increase truck size and weights, an endeavor that does not take into consideration the fact that our entire roadway system is already strained by congestion and by trucks weighing 80,000 pounds. Our roadways aren’t even keeping up with the current usage. Putting a Band-Aid on the issue by extending the current highway bill may help ease the problem, but it does not address the heart of the matter – that we need an overhaul of the way we fund our transportation projects.

The question of how to pay for the bill is legitimate. With the deficit expected to exceed $1.6 trillion, new revenue sources are needed that do not burden the taxpayers. Any bill that is eventually passed will have to be responsible and light on pork.

Currently, the Highway Trust Fund is supported by two main revenue sources: fuel taxes and excise taxes on new truck, trailer and tire sales. Even if Congress makes dramatic reforms to its transportation spending, those revenue sources are not bringing in enough money to keep up with our infrastructure needs.

While some, including the current administration, argue that we need to put off passage of the highway bill, others argue that the time to figure out new revenue sources is now. Creative approaches have been offered to generate funds that will not overburden truckers and other highway users. Transportation should not continue to suck funds from the general trust fund because that will ensure it takes a back seat to issues that are political hot buttons, and our infrastructure will always be in jeopardy.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, have fought valiantly against the administration and have sought to have the highway bill prioritized.

Unfortunately, I foresee the issue creeping into the latter half of 2010. For truckers, this means that an outdated regulatory framework will continue to be the law of the land, and outdated infrastructure that lends itself to congestion and deterioration will continue to occupy your time and jeopardize your safety.

Well, the old adage is, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. It is to be hoped that it won’t take another infrastructure tragedy to get the administration and Congress to take a drink. LL