Congress will pass a multiyear highway bill in 2012? Do not be such a tease

House, Senate will indeed pass their packages, but nothing will reach the President's desk--and that's OK

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Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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So Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. John Mica believe they can get something done regarding a new multiyear highway bill. U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood did not hold the same kind of hope. At the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting last week, he went over the timeline, month by month to outline his pessimism.

 

The Senate and House will get something done, there is no doubt about that. The House will mark up its bill, which still stands at $260 billion over five years and is dependent on future oil drilling, and the Senate appears to be ready to do the same with its two-year proposal. However, the latest SAFETEA-LU extension expires on March 31, which means Congress will have to grant at least one more extension, which most likely will be three months. That takes you into June, when campaigning will be absolutely crazy. The two sides are too far apart to come up with a compromise by then.

 

And let's address two key debate-sticking points: oil drilling and increased funding. Boxer said she has warned Mica on a number of occasions that the increase in drilling better be on existing sites--not new ones. Word today is House Speaker John Boehner will seek to override President Obama's veto of the of the Keystone XL pipeline as part of a long-term transportation bill. OK, that would be called a new one. Then you have the funding gap between the two bills. Do you really see the House Republicans bending on its $260 billion level? I do not think it is going to happen.

 

Congress did not have to wait until the 11th hour to get a multiyear highway bill done. In fact, I believe the reason for the uptick in chatter now is so those Democrats and Republicans can show the voting public that something is indeed getting done. Yes, something will be accomplished, but that something will never reach President Obama's desk.

So here we are, getting teased by the Washington politicians--again. The lack of a federal highway bill does not bother me as much as it did a year ago. Why? Because the states are stepping up to fill the void. They have no other choice. The Illinois Tollway recently unveiled a 15-year, $12 billion plan to reconstruct and even widen major thoroughfares. An 87% increase in tolls is breathing life into this endeavor. In Maryland, tolls to cross major bridges are spiking so the state can tend to road and bridge improvements. The state of Michigan is seriously considering an increase in the gas tax. What makes this move unique is the gas tax will fluctuate with the price of oil, and it looks like the state legislature might actually pass it.

 

Now, do not get me wrong, the absence of almost $300 billion in federal money is still a tragedy. However, it is getting the states to take action--needed action. I really think the industry can get something done here.

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