Abraham Lincoln said a house divided against itself cannot stand. Those words have rang true for the highway industry over the past 10 years with regard to working together for passage of federal transportation legislation.
The industry failed to come together and be a force to be reckoned with during the creation of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). In the end, the industry paid for its piece-meal effort by opening the door for those who sought to put the brakes on any form of roadway construction; be it expansion, reconstruction or maintenance.
The industry, however, learned an important lesson from the experience of ISTEA and banded together early on to make its case about the critical need for increased highway funding to ensure the economic and social well-being of the nation as it enters the next century. Eventually, the industry’s efforts culminated in passage of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) earlier this summer.
Because the industry took action and spoke with one voice, Congress listened. The act provided $217 billion in spending authority over the six-year life of the bill, a 40%increase over ISTEA. Perhaps more importantly, the act includes measures, which require that funds included in the federal Highway Trust Fund, to which all motorists contribute at the gas pump, be spent for their intended purpose; the maintenance and construction of our surface transportation infrastructure.
Industry associations, such as the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA) formed coalitions such as the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC) and Keep America Moving (KAM) with members of Congress and other national organizations that had a vested interest in keeping America’s highway infrastructure strong.
“The various associations that made up the TCC and KAM always wanted to work on their own because they all wanted to grab the credit,” said Doug Bernard, a former veteran Federal Highway Administration official, and now special consultant for the Equipment Manufacturers Institute and director of government relations for work-zone safety product manufacturer Energy Absorption Systems. “They realized it didn’t work with ISTEA and decided to bite the bullet and come together. ARTBA and AGC co-chaired the TCC and both were members of KAM.
“Those [members of Congress] on the Hill saw we were working together and they listened to us. Before they didn’t know who to listen to, the asphalt people, the concrete people, whoever.”
Political battle boils
The political battling over the new federal transportation bill reached a boil in mid-1997 after the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee rendered a six-year version of a highway bill that fell $35 billion short of the full funding provided for highways in the House version. In response, Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), Phil Gramm (R-Texas), John Warner (R-Va.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced an amendment to the bill that would increase funding in the Senate version by $31 billion.
In January 1998, the Byrd-Gramm-Warner-Baucus coalition turned up the heat, bringing together representatives from TCC, KAM and other groups to form a grassroots lobbying effort for passage of their amendment.
“We started meeting regularly once a week with Sens. Byrd, Graham, Warner and Baucus,” said Bernard. “Sen. Byrd ran the meetings, which were held in a room overlooking the Capitol. You’d look out onto the mall. It was inspiring. There were 20 to 40 people at the table. Sen. Byrd would go around the room and ask, ‘Who are you and what have you done for the cause and what do you plan to do tomorrow?’ It really made you feel as if we were all one group together.
“Sen. Byrd led every meeting and he was always there on time. I think he was a real unsung hero. He was excited, he took notes and told stories. He was interested. Sen. Gramm wasn’t far behind him either.”
A defining moment for Bill Toohey, senior vice president of ARTBA, occurred on the night following the elections in November 1994. “The night after election ’94, Bud Shuster, who was in line to become the new chair of the then [House] Public Works and Transportation Committee, had dinner with a small group of industry association people.
“At dinner Shuster said that he intended to move to take the Highway Trust Fund off-budget. That was part and parcel of ARTBA’s long-standing position. On Jan. 5, 1995, we organized a meeting to form the Alliance for Truth in Transportation. The alliance played a major role in the next several years in pushing the agenda to take the Highway Trust Fund off-budget and is greatly responsible for the unique budgetary treatment that the highway program got out of TEA-21.
“You can’t underestimate Bud Shuster’s role in getting the trust fund off-budget and gaining the significant federal investment.”
Shuster’s stance flew in the face of a budget-cutting frenzy that was sweeping the nation. “You’ve got to remember the mood at the time of the ’94 election year,” said Toohey. “Going into the election, Congress shifted toward the Republicans and those people were elected on the platform of cutting the budget and the Contract with America. Taking the Highway Trust Fund off-budget was going to throw gas on that fire. Highways stood to be cut with everything else, even though it has its own dedicated funding mechanism.”
Toohey reflected with pride on his industry’s call to action. “I can’t think of another industry that was able to interject itself into the budget debate like the highway industry,” he said. “With ISTEA, the industry was not together in 1989.”
Like Bernard, Toohey realizes there is still work to be done. “We can’t sit back and rest because the bill has been passed. We accomplished a lot in the bill for the highway program. But the fire walls and guaranteed money will be under attack. The streamlining provisions that are designed to speed projects are a target. How the provisions are implemented is key because there are those out there who don’t want projects to be sped up. They want to stop projects altogether. We also have to go through the yearly appropriations process, as well.”
All politics is local
“With ISTEA, the industry claimed victory for a piece of legislation that it shouldn’t have,” said Bill Fay, president of the AHUA. “We needed to be reunited and put into action the much-vaunted highway lobby that we’ve all heard about but hadn’t seen.”
In forming KAM, Fay said a wide variety organizations were included from the farm bureau to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to National Governor’s Association to business associations and typical road builders. “We formed a vigorous action plan,” said Fay. Communication was critical to the cause. “As we traveled around the country, I found that we hadn’t delivered our message very well. There were all these myths planted in the minds of editors.” On more than one occasion Fay said that an editor told him that, “If you build more roads you will worsen congestion.” “I would stop and ask them where they had heard that,” he said.
“The coalition went to 43 different states. Members of ARTBA, AGC and Highway Users stopped at service stations, equipment dealers, all kinds of places, communicating our message,” said Fay.
For Fay, a defining moment in his mind was when Sen. Byrd walked into the weekly Byrd-Gramm-Warner-Baucus coalition meeting and informed those in attendance that the group had succeeded in gaining an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) for 966of the funding sought by the group and an assurance from Domenici about securing the fire wall provision. “He said, ‘I didn’t think we could do this. You took on the big boys—and beat them.’”
“It was in those meetings that the ‘Fund Highways Now’ grassroots campaign was devised.” The campaign involved Mississippi highway advocates parking a bull dozer in front of the state capitol in Jackson with a sign in front of it that read, “Senator Lott: Fund Highways Now!” The course of action was repeated in several other states as well.
“I also remember when Sen. Byrd told us that Sen. Lott had agreed to negotiate with the alliance,” said Fay. “Sen. Byrd said that Sen. Lott said, ‘We’ll negotiate with you but will you turn off the heat?’ Sen. Byrd then said that we should double the heat instead of turn it off.”
Even with the achievements of TEA-21, Fay sees reason for concern. “If you look at the act, 494of the funds either can or must be used on a non-highway project, which disturbs me somewhat.”
And as for the future? “The environmental community is rolling up its sleeves and will fight projects individually,” said Fay. “For those who have said, ‘OK, we’ve got it,’ they better think again. We’re redoubling our efforts, particularly in light of the environmentalists’ suburban sprawl campaigns.”
“We’ve done a good job at the federal level,” said Fay. “But it’s infinitely more difficult to run a thousand mini campaigns around the country.”
Communication is key
“It was a few years of being focused on specific objectives,” said Frank Moretti, director of research for The Road Information Program (TRIP), of the TEA-21 effort. “The key for the highway construction industry was that we not only formed alliances with our own industry organizations, but with other organizations like the governors. It was different in the past. This time we had a broad set of groups working together.
“The basic role of TRIP was to pull together data and information and we used this network to release a lot of state-by-state data to the media and to Congress.” According to Moretti, the TV medium was hungry for TRIP information. “The television media loved it because it gave them the quick sound bite. All they had to do was look at the fact sheet and pass on the information.”
Amongst the data generated by TRIP one particular survey stood out, Moretti recalled. “TRIP conducted a survey of each state DOT that asked if the transportation bill did not move forward, what projects would be lost. Sen. Byrd actually read the projects on the senate floor. It really personalized the issue,” Moretti said. “Legislators were hearing about specific projects. It was critical in that it made the program more tangible.”
Up the road ahead, Moretti also sees the environmental lobby taking aim at TEA-21. “The EPA and other groups with an anti-growth agenda are seizing upon TEA-21 to block highway expansion. The decision about whether or not to build a road shouldn’t be made by the EPA or advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. There is a change taking place and our groups are starting to realize the importance of those communication efforts.”