2014: A Landmark Year for Infrastructure?

March 2014

NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
2014: A Landmark Year for Infrastructure?

BY ARIELLE EISER

BuildingOnly a few months in, 2014 is shaping up to be something that is almost unheard of in Washington, DC: a productive election year. The first session of the 113th Congress, which was plagued by political paralysis and included the first federal government shutdown in nearly two decades, set a low bar for what constitutes a productive Congress. It also pushed urgent legislative issues into the second session. Many of these issues will be further delayed and addressed anew when the 114th Congress is sworn in. However, one legislative issue in particular faces a make-or-break year: infrastructure.

Infrastructure is an issue of immense importance to the professional engineering community. PEs play a key role in planning, designing, implementing, constructing, operating, and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure systems. For too long our highways, roads, bridges, water and waste treatment systems, dams and levees, ports, railroads, and airports, as well as the electric power grid have been neglected. Desperately needed long-term infrastructure projects were deferred to address other national priorities or simply fell victim to the ongoing budget crisis. In fact, federal lawmakers extended the surface transportation authorization an unprecedented 10 times between 2005 and 2012, when Congress finally authorized the two-year Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).

Now, with MAP-21 set to expire before the end of 2014, two of the most significant pieces of infrastructure legislation are taking center stage in Congress. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) and the reauthorization of the surface transportation bill present a rare opportunity for Congress to set long-term priorities and provide needed investment in our nation’s infrastructure. Collectively, these two bills cover much, though not all, of US infrastructure.

The question then becomes, can Congress overcome continuing partisan gridlock and a decades-long pattern of short-term fixes to make a meaningful commitment to the long-term needs of US infrastructure? To answer, let’s consider where both bills currently stand in the legislative process.

WRRDA was passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate and was sent to conference committee to reconcile the two versions of the bill in November. After an initial enthusiastic push, the conference version of the bill has languished since December. While both versions garnered impressive bipartisan majorities in their respective legislative chambers, the bills do have significant differences that make a final agreement elusive. Discussions between House and Senate negotiators continue, but according to industry insiders, talks have not yet yielded a middle ground on issues ranging from the total cost of the bill, to the specific projects that will be funded, to streamlining the environmental review process. While these obstacles certainly pose a substantial challenge to enacting a final bill into law, the pressure to get the first water resources development authorization completed in seven years might provide the necessary push to finalize the legislation.

While WRRDA negotiations continue, the same authorizing committees in the House and Senate have already begun looking at the successor to MAP-21. On January 14, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) initiated the highway and transit reauthorization process at a hearing outlining goals for the bill and calling upon stakeholders for their input. Shuster provided a timeline for the authorization process, stating that he aims to bring legislation to the House floor before the August recess, enabling passage before the current authorization expires at the end of September.

While optimistic, this creates a very small window to enact major legislation. Both the Senate and House would need to shepherd legislation through their respective chambers and reconcile the two bills before Congress shifts its focus entirely to the elections. In order for this goal to be feasible, Congress must first come up with a solution for the Highway Trust Fund that has eluded legislators for years.

The Highway Trust Fund, which provides federal funding for road construction projects, will run out of money in September unless Congress takes action to appropriate additional funds. The Highway Trust Fund is traditionally funded by an 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993. Unfortunately, the gas tax brings in only about $35 billion, while MAP-21 includes approximately $54 billion per year in road and transit spending. A true, long-term investment in infrastructure would require a substantial increase over the $54 billion level. Therefore, in order for MAP-21’s successor to be authorized and ensure improvements to our national infrastructure, legislators in both the House and Senate will need to agree on a financing mechanism, likely a tax increase. This faces tremendous opposition and makes passage in 2014 very difficult.

Simply put, 2014 is a make-or-break year for infrastructure. Water resources development and surface transportation authorization bills present enormous opportunities, but substantive disagreements threaten to derail long-term investments at a time when the nation can no longer defer without tremendous consequences. This promises to be one of the top issues to watch in 2014.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE’s manager of government relations.