Watch what they pick

When the time comes to edit the new highway bill, certain sections need to be revised

Bill Wilson / May 09, 2005

My sister went to the University of Illinois; my brother-in-law went to the University of Illinois; and here’s the clincher, my fiancée went to the University of Illinois. Now, with those three facts established you would think picking the Fighting Illini to go all the way in our traditional office NCAA bracket pool was a no-brainer. Refusing to take this path could set me up for future finger pointing at family holiday parties and, worse yet, a night at the local dog house. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, because not only did I fail to pick Illinois to win the championship, I didn’t even have them in my Final Four.

To be honest, I can’t even correctly predict what I’m going to have for breakfast the next morning. So when people asked me two years ago when the next highway funding bill was going to be passed, I should have enlightened them to the fact that two years ago I felt the Chicago Bulls, coming off a stellar 30-52 record, were going to make the NBA playoffs. I don’t believe the “BeataBulls” won 20. I have given at least six different “passing” dates for the reauthorization of TEA-21, and all have rotted on the congressional floor. I’m done licking my index finger, sticking it up in the air and claiming a day—or even a time of year.

However, once the final funding level is hoisted up on the federal mountaintop there are some pretty dangerous sections which need to be red-flagged by the final proofreaders. Allow me to blow the whistle on a few of them.

Liability insurance

According to the new reauthorization, prime contractors and subcontractors would be subject to $15 million in liability insurance in work-zone traffic control on all jobs valued at $15 million or more. If a prime contractor subs out that type of work, it would be the responsibility of the subcontractor to provide the coverage, which could cost $100,000 or more a year.
This type of provision pushes away several of the smaller operations which simply can’t afford compliance. In fact, the number of qualified subcontractors may reduce significantly. A lack of competition usually results to an increase in price—one that is passed on to the prime contractor.

Work-zone coverage

All projects tagged at $15 million or more also may carry a 5% cost for work-zone protection. So no matter how much is needed, all contracts must dedicate 5% of the total cost toward worker safety. I’m a firm believer that you can never have enough work-zone protection, but some jobs may only require 2% of the total price tag to achieve the maximum level, while others may call for 7-8%. Placing such a rigid requirement on something which demands to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis doesn’t seem right.

Emission reduction

The Senate version of the reauthorization bill also requires local governments to establish emission reduction strategies for construction equipment fleets that are being used in a clean air nonattainment area. Some of the strategies addressed in the measure include diesel retrofit, equipment retrofit and contractor preference. First of all, most of the larger contractors handle work in several neighboring states. Allowing those at the local level to police their own region will only result in a number of different regulations to follow. So will these same contractors need, say, 10 different sets of equipment to adhere to the various zones?

Again, passing a lump sum of cash is one thing, passing a lump sum of verbiage is quite another. Immediately following the passing of the Senate’s $284 billion, $290 billion or $299 billion (remember, I can’t predict), lawmakers will go into conference and make deals over various provisions in the two bills. I’m told this will be done at approximately the speed of light. If I had known it would take Congress two years to approve the next six years of funding, I would have preferred a quick decision on the dollar level, then an 18-month comb-over of all the details. Words are just as lethal as numbers. Being an editor and a columnist, I feel safe making that prediction.

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