Monday, March 26, 2012

Transportation Bill To Costly To Get Wrong

State and local governments always have their hand out for federal funds to repair, rebuild, or build roads to nowhere. It is no surprise that they are howling to get passage of a new and expensive transportation bill through Congress. It is also not a surprise that congressional leaders are pitching the bills as the hottest way to create and generate new jobs, many go on to talk about how America's crumbling and aging infrastructure needs to be upgraded, in my opinion both these issues are far over stated. Everything starts to deteriorate even before construction ends, nothing is perfect, but our infrastructure is not falling apart.

But does this massive outlay in new transportation projects really create new jobs? Many economist say that often what we see is merely a shift in investment and money that was creating jobs elsewhere diverted to the transportation industries. That means different jobs, but not necessarily additional ones. Investments in transportation infrastructure, if well designed, should be viewed as investments in future productivity, growth, and return dividends over time, unfortunately this money is often poorly spent. Many of the street lights along the interstate in busy areas remain dark at night from lack of bulb replacement or maintenance while we rush to add many more new lights at huge cost. While many small Airports struggle with few passengers and little revenue we pour money into upgrading them, choosing not to improve our poor air-traffic control system.

The question of job creation is relatively unimportant when compared to other significant economic benefits of maintaining and improving the nation's transportation system, such as enabling people to get to work and businesses to speedily move goods, say economists and transportation experts. But that hasn't diminished the jobs claims being made on Capitol Hill. "This legislation would put 2 million middle-class Americans back to work right away," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday,  "Although our economy has gained momentum, there are still millions of Americans out of work. So it should be obvious why we can't afford to delay efforts to rebuild our roadways, railways and bridges," he explained.

With less than two weeks before federal money runs out for transportation projects across the country, a partisan showdown is developing between Senate Democrats and House Republicans over passing a new bill. The standoff, based on sharply differing views about the overall expense of the bill and how to pay for it, jeopardizes thousands of road and bridge construction projects. On Wednesday, House Transportation Committee Chairman said the House would soon pass a three-month extension of existing funding to provide time for negotiations over a longer-term bill. That idea was rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who said House Republicans should accept a two-year, $109 billion bill that recently passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support.

"Millions of people depend on this highway bill that has passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis," Reid said. "They depend on it for their jobs. But it seems to me that the House has come to the conclusion, led by the House leadership, that they can't do anything unless they get a permission slip from the tea party." The problem is that many Republicans see the Senate bill as a "crap sandwich" that they're going to have eat if they can't come up with an alternative. Outside the Capitol, Heritage Action for America, a right-wing grassroots group, considered a "no" vote on the Senate bill a "key vote" in determining whether a legislator is sticking to conservative principles. Conservatives are worried about a "spending boondoggle," which reflects their general anxiety about a federal investment that is loaded with earmarks.

In the 1950s when President Eisenhower proposed plans to construct a Interstate highway System few Americans thought they would use the roads on a daily basis to get to work or go shopping. The idea was to  create a system that would allow goods, people, and the military to move quickly over long distances. It appears our roadways are a victim of their own success. After a few years of not driving on a long trip I hit the road and found many new lanes and upgrades have taken place, if the roads cannot handle the traffic it is only because the volume of vehicles has grown so large. Our goal should be to lessen the traffic and encourage off hour use rather then rush to add lane, after lane,  after lane.

The wing of the conservative party that wants to kill the Senate bill sees the legislation involves broader questions about federal spending, they are troubled by how Congress acted in previous years using earmarks and other special favors. This is as much about ideology as it is about transportation. Will the bill  survive? Is it a spending boondoggle? Is it too much like the previous highway bill? Is this the appropriate legislation for conservatives to use in waging their battle on big government? One thing is perfectly clear, we as a Nation do not have an endless supply of money to fund poorly crafted programs. If Congress passes a transportation bill they owe it to the American people to get it right.

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