At least Congress put the bat on the ball

Passing of MAP-21 is nice, but lawmakers did not hit a home run here

Blog Entry July 02, 2012

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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This year was the first for my son in baseball. He went the T-ball route when he was four, and was bored to tears with it. At the onset, he was not too thrilled when I dragged him to baseball sign-ups this winter, but I kept telling him that this year the coach would actually pitch to him. It was enough to pacify him until the season started, and once he got into it he really enjoyed it. Coaches only pitch a certain number of balls until the empty swings need some extra help--in this case a tee. About once a game, Aidan needed to hit off of the tee, and once he made contact all the parents would cheer as if he hit a nasty slider for a game-winning hit. In my head the same rhetoric played out: "OK, nice contact, but I really want to see you hit a live pitch."

 

This is exactly how I feel about Congress' day or two of lightning rounds to get a new highway bill put in place. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) will fund the road and bridge industry about $102 billion through 2014. Some are calling it a multiyear bill, but to me, like a winning streak in baseball, just over two years should not be considered multiple. Again, the Democrats and Republicans made nice contact here, but this played out more like a run-scoring fielder's choice than a hard shot up the middle.

 

The attempts at program reform are promising. Environmental streamlining has been talked about for quite some time, and it looks like lawmakers are finally laying the ground work to make it a reality. States should be able to lease existing corridors, and MAP-21 will encourage this action. Those at the state and local level should also have more power deciding which projects receive federal funds, and supposedly there will be that degree of flexibility. MAP-21 also calls for more accountability and encourages public scrutiny.

 

Program reform will certainly benefit the industry in the long run--as long as it is all implemented. Moving projects along at a faster pace is great, but what about the Environmental Protection Agency's crack down on particulate matter? If projects could be stopped mid-swing, how is it beneficial to move it quickly on the front end? MAP-21 does not contain a single earmark, but what about those states or local agencies which decide to abuse their power? What if a DOT decides to fund a road project that is a little further down the priority list just because it has the power to do so?

 

MAP-21 also contains no new funding, which I have been told is a strategic move. Congress is buying time so it can finally, once and for all, come up with a long-term funding solution for the Highway Trust Fund. If you were to take roll call right now, a majority of the Dems and Republicans would be against raising the gas tax AND installing a mileage-based fee system. So what is the answer going to be at the end of 2014? Over the course of this bill, contractors will be relieved that they will not be looking at more layoffs, but I can't imagine any one will go out and spend a wad on new equipment--or hire more people for that matter. This bill will sustain employment--not boost it.

So Congress made contact here, which is better than the string of empty swings that came in the form of funding extensions. But I do not know if MAP-21 will make it out of the infield.

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