Wrong picture

Future of new construction in trouble as Congress buckles under spending pressure

Article April 12, 2004
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I remember when the White House disappointed me for the first time. I was 7 years old.
There I was, sitting in John Casey’s house and watching him scarf down the rest of his cereal when his mom interrupted with some late-breaking news.

“Oh, John heard from the president of the United States, Bill. John, show Bill what you got in the mail.”

Everybody had a best friend next door growing up, and John was usually the first one with a brand-new Big Wheel or the latest Six Million-Dollar Man lunch box. This kid always seemed to one-up me, and sure enough as he chewed the last bite of his Cap’n Crunch he handed me the official document, complete with a picture and signature of President Gerald Ford. My mind charged with excitement as I asked exactly how he received such a high endorsement from the most powerful man in the world.

That day after school I followed John’s instructions to the finest detail. I carefully wrote a letter praising the president’s work, sealed and carefully addressed the envelope before sticking it in the mailbox in hopes of the ultimate show-and-tell piece. Eight weeks later I had a response—one that came in a big, square envelope the size of what appeared to be, yes, a picture. My cautious inhibitions quickly ceased as I ripped it open . . . only to find a big, cheesy-smiling shot of new President Jimmy Carter. My mission was destroyed. Apparently those at the White House were too slow in placing my fan mail on the right desk.

Well, I have one bit of advice to all in the highway and bridge construction industry: do not sit by the mailbox waiting for the good word on the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Don’t bother standing by the radio or television, either. You see, the powers-that-be are putting on their big, cheesy smile and trying to convince us that a bill under $300 billion is right because it will boost funding more than 30% while still adhering to President Bush’s rein on capital spending.

Not too long ago the U.S. DOT completed a study and suggested the nation is in need of a six-year, $375 billion highway bill to maintain and slightly upgrade the current system. Late last year Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta took a knife to the research from his own office and endorsed the administration’s malnourished $256 billion package. Both the House and Senate stood up to the pressure—for awhile anyway. Now the House has retreated to $275 billion and the Senate’s knees were weakening in support of $318 billion. The new and degraded House version does have a provision that will require Congress to “revisit” the funding bill in the near future. But judging by our leaders’ traditional tardiness, and the possibility of a new administration taking over, I’m not bubbling with confidence.

Word off the Capitol Hill gossip channel is both branches of Congress are afraid of sending anything to the president’s desk which may be struck by his veto pen. This is the same president who went back on his word and threatened to reject the Senate’s offer despite a funding formula which did not include an increase in the federal gas tax, indexing of the federal gas tax, bonding or any measure increasing the general deficit.

You see, a veto would actually draw media attention during an election year. Despite their high degrees, officials sitting in Washington, D.C., know how to sweep. Prescription drugs, homeland security and the Iraq war are the chosen election topics, while highway funding sits and soaks under the rug.

In a time when jobs are jumping on the next ship overseas to cheaper labor, over 2.5 million all-American positions in the highway and bridge field are now in jeopardy. But the decision makers continue to wear that sharp-cheddar smile on the campaign trail, telling voters they’re watching out for their best interests. In reality, they’re failing like a poorly trained seeing-eye dog. We’re about to hit a wall.

I would write our president a letter, but by the time it’s processed I’ll probably get a picture of John Kerry. It may not be such a disappointment.

About the author: 
Bill Wilson<br> Editor<br> [email protected]<br>
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