Transportation industry officials, meeting with reporters at a briefing sponsored by AASHTO on Nov. 30, said excessive focus on a handful of controversial earmarks in the recently passed surface-transportation reauthorization bill has left the public with an unduly negative impression of the new law.
Americans also need to realize that they live in a world in which the U.S. cannot rest on its infrastructural laurels, said Executive Director John Horsley of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). He noted that China is building an Interstate-style highway system at breakneck speed. Having improved transportation will only make China more competitive in world markets, Horsley noted.
Extensive coverage of a handful of Congressional earmarks in the transportation bill—notably a pair of proposed bridges that Congress recently struck as priorities in recognition of their lighting-rod status—has overshadowed the benefit Americans can expect to get from the $286.5 billion Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the officials said.
“It’s been reduced to a caricature, a cartoon,” said Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA).
In a roundtable briefing for the Washington transportation press, officials of AASHTO, ARTBA, the Association of General Contractors (AGC), the American Public Transportation Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Highway Users Alliance said work will need to begin immediately to build the case for adequate investment in U.S. transportation, rather than letting public awareness of the issue lapse for a year or two before the buildup to the next reauthorization.
The officials noted that more than 90% of the bill’s funding was not earmarked but instead will be distributed to states via formula. They added that most of the earmarked projects will add value to transportation. Many—such as the I-69 corridor that carries trade freight through seven states and the Alameda Corridor and CREATE road/rail projects in Los Angeles and Chicago that will improve freight flows and safety—offer both regional and national benefits.
“You can pick out one or two projects [in the new law] that you don’t like. I can pick out 100 projects that are a huge benefit,” said Greg Cohen, director of the American Highway Users Alliance.
Horsley noted that AASHTO has opposed earmarking in transportation reauthorization bills, as a matter of policy, for several years. AGC Chief Executive Officer Steve Sandherr said his members dislike seeing any earmarks in the bill that aren’t directly related to transportation.
“We’re not defending earmarks, but they’re part of the political process,” said Ruane. They appear in many pieces of legislation—not just transportation bills—and have for years, he said.
The leaders agreed that there will be multiple opportunities in coming months to bring the case for strengthened transportation to the public—from deliberations of a pair of Congressionally named committees on the future of the Interstate Highway System and the financing of U.S. highways and transit to public celebrations, policy conferences and other events linked to the 50th anniversary of the Interstate system.
Ed Mortimer, who heads transportation policy formation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and is executive director of its associated group, Americans for Transportation Mobility, said work must begin immediately to gather the facts and make the case for what may be watershed changes in the U.S. approach to providing transportation.
Noting a chamber report issued in November that stated current Highway Trust Fund revenues might not be sufficient to cover spending in the later years of the current six-year reauthorization law, Mortimer said if changes are in order, they will take years to implement—so “we need to have that discussion now.”