As for what to do when SAFE-TEA-LU expires later this month, Washington is not married to anything—yet. Plenty of bouquets made of solutions were being tossed around during the month of July and into August. None of them looked prettier than a new six-year highway bill but many believe the right one, at least in the short term, was caught by both the House and the Senate.
Both branches of Congress passed a $7 billion Highway Trust Fund fix that will keep the account physically able to support road and bridge work across the U.S. into October. It was a soft yet on-key toot of the horn for House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who has been beating the drum of long-term action for well over a year now. Oberstar was suggesting a $3 billion fix in July that would last until SAFETEA-LU expired on Sept. 30, but the fact that both the House and Senate agreed to a funding solution that covers their recess time kept the possibility of Oberstar’s six-year, $450 billion overture playing out before 2009 comes to a close.
The Senate, however, was playing at a more dangerous tempo leading up to the Congressional break. It released a proposed $26.8 billion that would form a duet with the Obama administration’s proposed 18-month funding extension of SAFETEA-LU and would keep the annual expenditure level at just over $40 billion until 2011. The measure, however, was dangling a shiny lure. If passed, it would restore the Highway Trust Fund’s ability to keep the interest it accrues on unspent balances. Transportation policy makers have been longing for such a device for years.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), however, made it all look like a regurgitated worm in late July. The CBO found that if the current transportation funding levels were continued over the next 10 years, an estimated $3 billion in extra annual revenue would be created for new spending—just one-seventh of the projected yearly shortfall in transportation programs.
With health-care reform and cap-and-trade continuing to wade in Congressional waters, there still is hope that a new six-year highway bill could finally find its stroke and be passed by the end of the year.
At press time, a move to tax oil futures to increase transportation funding was gaining support. Since the measure could create $200 billion it could be a breakthrough.
No salvation army
With a commitment imminent regarding the Highway Trust Fund, more were trying to come in between progress and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in July. According to a report released by the Associated Press, very few bridges listed as deficient structures are being given a stimulus look. In fact, the AP pointed out that of the 2,476 bridges scheduled to receive stimulus money through the midpoint of the summer, “nearly half have passed inspections with high marks, according to federal data.” The report went on to reveal that 70% of the $17 billion in stimulus money approved through July was used for repaving or widening roads, while bridge projects received just 12%.
Of course, the whole purpose behind the stimulus bill was to fund those projects that were “shovel-ready” so that the unemployed could be called back into action quickly, dressing up road projects in provocative rhetoric. The nation’s weakest bridges will have to just wait for a six-year bill.
But the AP said that is not how the stimulus package was sold by President Barack Obama. Obama and other politicians, according to the news source, pointed to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression as an example of how transportation money in the new stimulus law could “remake the face of the nation.”
Bridge projects do take a lot longer to materialize, and in many cases states already had some crippling structures set for reconstruction using different dollars.
As for the overall effectiveness of ARRA, well, that is still a toss-up.