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Transpo Leaders Urged to Pressure Congress On Highway Bill

February 27, 2015

By David Cullen

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Lobbying by officials of State transportation departments can help get a long-term highway bill passed this year, said key U.S. Representatives and Senators at a briefing in Washington D.C. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials hosted its annual Washington Briefing where top government officials spoke about the urgency of the Highway Bill.

The remarks came just two weeks after this year’s first hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure regarding surface-transportation reauthorization. Indeed, “urgent need” had been the phrase most emphasized during the testimony given there.

Here is a sampling of how the Capitol Hill transportation mavens framed what needs to be done in hopes that highway funding won’t yet again become the proverbial can kicked down the road:

"Help us move the bill by talking to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle," implored Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee." On my side of the aisle," he said, “there are some who think, 'Oh we spend too much already.' But I think everybody in this room knows there needs to be significantly more investment into our infrastructure. And my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, when they see a new pot of money they want to come up with six or seven new programs. And we've really got to focus what we spend these dollars on."

"Don't be shy - You have to let them know how strongly you feel." -Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK)

Shuster stressed that funding needs to be focused on "critical infrastructure," such as rebuilding bridges and highway corridors key to freight movements, "I can't move a piece of legislation," he added, "without the stakeholders out there banging the drum."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Administration (responsible for the highway portion of any highway and transit reauthorizing legislation) advised State DOT officials to identify the 17 sitting Senators who voted against the 2012 MAP-21 highway bill and designate officials from their states to lobby those lawmakers.

"You have to know who the target is," Inhofe said. "Don't be shy" about educating members of their states’ Congressional delegations on the issue. "You have to let them know how strongly you feel."

Inhofe said he expects a long-term will be passed. Still, he emphasized that "there's not a chance in the world we could do this" without State DOT officials joining other infrastructure advocates in their states, including chambers of commerce, manufacturers and farm groups.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Ranking Member of the House T&I Committee, said that he and Shuster were “working well together and are largely on the same page about what would go into a highway and transit bill,” according to AASHTO. DeFazio agreed that State DOT officials could have a significant impact on the highway bill.

While Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ranking Member of the Senate EPW Committee, did not attend, a message she sent was read out by AASHTO executive director Bud Wright.

“We will need your help to ensure that the bill moves through Congress, after it emerges from the committee,” Boxer wrote. She also said State officials should "speak to your Senators and your House members about the importance of federal funding for transportation and passing a transportation bill this spring.

"Current funding levels are inadequate…. I can't help you if Congress doesn't act." - Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx

“In the EPW Committee, Chairman Inhofe and I have a good working relationship when it comes to infrastructure,” Boxer noted. “The EPW Committee unanimously passed a MAP-21 reauthorization bill last May, and while I believe that we can get a bill out of our Committee again this year, we will need your help to ensure that the bill moves through Congress.”

For his part, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told AASHTO members that State officials should "tell the truth to members of Congress" about the disruptive costs of short-term program extensions and how "current funding levels are inadequate…. I can't help you if Congress doesn't act. If I can't help you, you can't help yourselves and the citizens of our country are going to be stuck in traffic."

Also during the conference, both Sen. Inhofe and Rep. Shuster said they still aim to pass a long-term bill by May 31st, according to AASHTO, and the pair panned the so-called devolution of funding to the states— pointing out that transportation investment is a constitutional responsibility of Congress.

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