WASHINGTON – States are losing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs because Congress failed to pass a federal highway bill last year, state transportation officials told Congress on Tuesday. They urged lawmakers to make the spending bill one of the first orders of business.
"If we don't get a bill by April 1, we lose another construction season," John Njord, head of the Utah Department of Transportation, said at a news conference. "Congress needs to recognize this."
The demise of a six-year, approximately $300 billion bill to fund highway and mass transit programs was one of the most glaring setbacks of the last session of Congress.
The previous six-year plan, financed at $218 billion, expired in September 2003. Congress has had to pass six extensions, the latest through May, to keep money flowing at that old level.
Unlike other more partisan battles, the conflict here has been between the White House, which suggested a $256 billion figure and threatened to veto any number that adds to the federal deficit (search), and lawmakers from both parties who say the nation's crumbling infrastructure demands a far higher figure.
Phil Shucet, Virginia's transportation commissioner, said his state will lose $50 million in purchasing power by the time the latest extension ends. Ohio's transportation director, Gordon Proctor, said his state could gain between 75,000 and 150,000 jobs with passage of a long-term bill.
"We absolutely depend on understanding what the resources are over the next six years," Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler said.
The transportation officials said they would be receptive, as long as the money were adequate, to a five-year bill as a way to hold down the overall cost. That's one idea being considered by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (search).
Steve Hansen, spokesman for House Transportation Committee (search) Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, said they plan to move a bill through Congress as quickly as possible. However, they are still waiting for the administration to weigh in and to get estimates of projected revenues from the highway trust fund.
Federal grants to the states for highway construction and safety programs come almost entirely from the trust fund, which is derived from the federal gas tax paid by drivers.
The state transportation officials, and industry representatives at the news conference, said the money coming in from these user fees will be sufficient to pay for a strong highway bill without driving up the deficit, a major concern as Congress tries to tighten its fiscal belt this year.
Stephen Sandheer, head of the Associated General Contractors of America (search), said lawmakers will also be more eager to pass a bill now because of the highway projects they promised during the election campaign. "They're on the spot and they have to deliver for their constituents," Sandheer said.