Last-Minute Congressional Passage Of Highway-Mass Transit Funding Bill Still Leaves Union Leaders Grumbling

WASHINGTON—Congress’ literally last-minute passage of a $11 billion bill to fund highway, bridge and mass transit projects through next May still left union leaders grumbling.

That’s because the lawmakers did nothing to solve the permanent problems of the Highway Trust Fund, whose gas tax revenues ordinarily fuel the projects.  The fund was running out of money, thus threatening to idle 700,000 construction workers at the height of construction season, when lawmakers acted.   And solons found the funds elsewhere, thus “kicking the can down the road” before leaving August 1 for their month-long recess.

AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel called the 113th Congress “the least-productive Congress in history.”

“There are an enormous number of needs going unmet,” Samuel said in an interview during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Washington.

“Our focus is on jobs – a serious commitment to building infrastructure, to resolving the public pension crisis, to rewrite labor laws.  But none of these have a chance,” he declared.

Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan laid the blame on the GOP-run House, both for waiting until the last minute on the fix and on its refusal to approve a long-term highway bill.  Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley extended it to both chambers.

“What is the House of Representatives waiting for?” asked a disgusted O’Sullivan.  “Another catastrophic bridge collapse?  More massive potholes?  A school bus accident?

“Our roads, bridges, and highways are literally crumbling around us, the highway trust fund is about to go broke, the federal gas tax has failed to keep pace with inflation and rising fuel efficiency,  and unemployed construction workers desperately need jobs.  Sadly, some Washington politicians want to stick their heads in the sand, avoid this debate as long as possible, and continue to pretend the status quo is acceptable.”

Hanley called the short-term fix an “ongoing game of  kick the commuter down the road.”

“Congress continues to drive the Highway Trust Fund and public transit right into the ground.  With the last transportation bill, Congress cut capital funds set aside exclusively for bus and bus facilities by 50 percent – hanging commuters out to dry even as ridership hit record levels.”

Hanley also faulted the Transportation Department for shifting “money meant for essential urban bus transportation to vanity streetcar projects,” mostly in tourist areas. That leaves people who rely on transit stranded.

The council was similarly disgusted, in a statement it issued on July 30.  “Political gridlock has turned the United States from the nation that led every major advance in public economic development – in rail and transit, roads, sewers, utilities, aviation, shipping and so much more –into a nation that can’t find the will to lead in the 21st century,” it said.

“People want and deserve leadership that will take the steps necessary to keep the nation strong and to ensure the foundation for our economy is sound.  This leadership must begin by rebuilding the infrastructure that thrust the United States into the modern era but now is out of date and falling apart.”  Non-partisan studies calculate the U.S. must spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring roads, bridges, subways and buses into good condition.

It won’t, thanks to the House, Samuel says.  “The House leadership doesn’t have an agenda – and they couldn’t pass one if they did, because their caucus is so divided,” between Tea Partyites and others, he comments.