NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
BY SARAH OGDEN
On January 24, President Obama made the final State of the Union address of his first term. Sandwiched between the South Carolina and Florida Republican presidential primaries, the speech gave the president a platform to outline his 2012 agenda and address his own campaign themes amidst the GOP debates. Notably, the president linked rebuilding U.S. infrastructure with job growth, saying, "There's never been a better time to build, especially since the construction industry was one of the hardest-hit when the housing bubble burst."
There is little doubt that adequately funded infrastructure systems are a boon to the economy. For every $1.25 billion in federal money spent on transportation infrastructure, 35,000 jobs are supported, according to a 2007 Federal Highway Administration study. The U.S. also needs strong infrastructure to support its industrial and commercial base in order to remain competitive in the global market.
Without strong infrastructure, our national economic position, including our nation's workforce, production, health, safety, and overall welfare is at risk. Yet Congress has been able to fund surface transportation programs only through short-term extensions since the last transportation law expired in 2009. In January, NSPE joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and more than 1,000 professional, trade, and nonprofit organizations; businesses; and labor groups in sending a letter to Congress urging expedient passage of a long-term transportation reauthorization bill.
Enacting long-term federal transportation legislation is critical. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the U.S. needs $2.2 trillion over five years to repair its infrastructure. The uncertainty inherent in short-term extensions prevents state and local governments from planning long-term operation and maintenance programs. Only long-term legislation would enable the design and construction of the long-range programs required to bring U.S. infrastructure into a state of good repair.
With the current transportation funding extension set to expire on March 31, Congress and the administration seem to have agreed that passing transportation reauthorization legislation is a priority. The House has introduced the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 7), which would authorize $260 billion for transportation programs over five years. The Senate's Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (S. 1813) would authorize $109 billion over two years. Both bills would consolidate transportation programs and streamline environmental reviews, policies that align with the president's plan to reduce regulatory burdens that delay transportation projects. The House and Senate bills also would expand the Transportation and Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which provides low-interest loans for private investment in public projects, from $122 million a year to $1 billion a year.
Offsetting the cost of such a bill, however, is an issue that has divided not only Democrats from Republicans, but moderate Republicans from conservative Republicans. The Senate has drawn Republican criticism of its otherwise bipartisan bill by proposing funding the reauthorization with a one-time, $3 billion transfer from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund; certain import tariffs; and denying or revoking passports from those with federal tax debts greater than $50,000.
Meanwhile, the House has proposed funding its bill, in part, with royalties from expanded oil and gas drilling, including in coastal areas and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Senate Democrats already have promised to reject this proposal.) House Republicans are also fighting dissention in their own party, attempting to win over fiscal conservatives by inserting provisions that would shift permitting authority for the Keystone XL oil pipeline from the State Department to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and increasing federal employees' pension contributions to help pay for the transportation bill. The House bill also includes a provision that would eliminate dedicated funding for public transportation. Efforts to build support within the GOP ranks, however, are alienating powerful coalitions and even former allies—including public transit organizations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who initially supported the House bill but object to the unlinking of public transit from a reliable funding stream.
The discord has raised doubts that Congress will be able to pass a long-term bill before the elections. In the face of concerns about their own reelection, however, lawmakers may be more willing to seek compromise as constituents demand accountability for continued unemployment and economic hardship. In his address, President Obama challenged Congress to work together, saying, "We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common sense ideas." Building consensus to fund America's infrastructure is more than common sense, however: It is essential to the public health, safety, and welfare.
For more information on NSPE's position statement on infrastructure and other issues, please visit www.nspe.org/IssuesandAdvocacy and click on "Take Action."