There are indications that Washington is starting to think seriously about passing a long-term transportation authorization bill this year.
House and Senate committees are holding initial hearings this week, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said his goal is to have a bill signed by August.
President Obama in his State of the Union address underscored the need for action.
Rebuilding infrastructure is key to restoring American competiveness, he said. "We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods and information."
Obama emphasized high-speed passenger rail and communications infrastructure, but he also said that the U.S. has fallen behind in highway investment.
"We'll put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We'll make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians."
He took the last point a step further. "If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it," he said.
Obama's support is seen as critical to the process. "From the transportation perspective it was a huge win that the president included infrastructure as a core priority of his," said Norma Krayem, a senior policy advisor at the Washington, D.C., legal services firm, Patton Boggs.
The move gives those in Congress who want to pass a bill a strong political foundation, said Krayem, who served as deputy chief of staff at the Department of Transportation during the Clinton administration.
"Over the course of the last year or two there's been competing legislative demands," she said. "If you have the collective political will coming from the White House … and if you can rally bipartisan support, get the momentum going in the right direction, that's at least 50 percent of the deal."
There's little talk of raising the fuel tax to increase funding, but there may be potential for compromise based on Republicans' need to hold the line on funding and the transportation community's need for a long-term plan - particularly with the clock ticking toward the 2010 presidential election.
"The leadership of the Congress has made it clear that they need to have a fiscally responsible plan in place," Krayem said. "Mr. Mica (Rep. John Mica, D-Fla., Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) has said we need to do more with less."
And if the bill isn't done in this Congress, it won't be done until after the election, she added. "That can help refocus peoples' attention on trying to come up with a compromise. Political will is 50 percent of the deal."
Obama's message also drew approving comments from major constituents in the highway community.
"We continue to be encouraged that President Obama supports investing in America's transportation infrastructure - recognizing the role it plays in creating jobs, growing the national economy and balancing the federal deficit," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in a statement. He added that AASHTO is looking forward to working on the bill with the administration and Congress.
Business and labor paused their strife long enough to harmonize in praise of Obama's message. In a joint statement the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO said, "America's working families and business community stand united in applauding President Obama's call to create jobs and grow our economy through investment in our nation's infrastructure."
The administration is expected to unveil its version of a reauthorization proposal in mid-February after it releases its 2011 budget.
Congress at Work
Meanwhile, key congressional committees have begun work.
Yesterday the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on reauthorization. Perhaps as a sign of bipartisan cooperation, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the committee said in her opening remarks that she is working closely with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., on the bill "because we both agree it is a priority and we want to see a new bill enacted this year."
Inhofe said in his statement: "The chairman and I share a very strong belief in federal infrastructure spending and the need for a robust multi-year highway bill. I am frequently ranked the most conservative senator. And the chairman is a proud liberal. Yet, we are a great team on infrastructure issues."
Among the witnesses at the hearing was Wayne Johnson, manager of global carrier relations for Owens Corning. Johnson, speaking for the National Industrial Transportation League, outlined a broad strategic program that shippers and carriers want to see implemented in the bill.
Among the key elements: develop a National Multimodal Freight Plan, provide dedicated funding for freight movement, allow states to administer freight programs and if a new freight trust fund is created make sure that its funds go only to freight. Other objectives include a multi-modal freight office at DOT, a freight industry advisory group for DOT, freight corridor planning organizations, more freight expertise at the state and local levels, build on the success of current freight programs such as the Truck Parking Pilot Program, and better operational and environmental efficiency.
Today the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is holding a hearing in New York City on high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, a key part of Mica's reauthorization agenda.
Mica said yesterday that his first order of business will be to pass reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration program, which is currently on its 17th extension.
After that, he will focus on the transportation bill, he said at the first official meeting of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the new Congress. He plans to hold field hearings in a dozen states the week of February 17-25, starting in West Virginia - the home state of the committee's ranking Democratic member, Nick Rahall.
"It will be an open process," Mica said. "We're going to get the darned thing done. The most important thing we can do is get people back to work."
At yesterday's meeting the committee adopted an Oversight Plan that includes a list of highway-related objectives. Many of these objectives echo plans contained in the blueprint reauthorization bill the committee drafted in 2009 under the leadership of former Chairman Jim Oberstar. They include streamlining the project delivery process, consolidating overlapping DOT programs, examining the federal role in transportation and improving performance and accountability.
The committee also will continue to look at alternative financing techniques, including private investment - an approach that Obama endorsed in his speech - and it aims to free up funds that been sidelined by projects being delayed or cancelled.
The committee also took note of several hot topics in trucking right now. It plans close oversight of the hours of service proposal that is now working its way through the rulemaking process, and it will monitor emerging plans to reopen the U.S.-Mexico border to limited long-distance trucking. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's new safety enforcement program, CSA, also will be under scrutiny.