Union Leaders to Lawmakers: Pass Permanent Highway-Mass Transit Bill, Not Just Short-Term Fix

WASHINGTON–Construction and transportation union leaders thanked lawmakers for approving legislation to keep the highway-mass transit trust fund – and job-creating road repair projects and bus and subway improvements – going.  But they also again demanded Congress stop delaying and approve a permanent highway-mass transit measure.

Democratic President Barack Obama echoed those views after the GOP-run House approved the 9-month fix, taking $9.9 billion from general tax and $1 billion from a fund to fix leaking underground storage tanks, to shore up the trust fund.  The July 15 vote was 367-55, and the Democratic-run Senate was expected to quickly follow suit.

Without the money, the Highway Trust Fund, which doles out federal gas tax revenue for road-building and repairs, bus purchases and subway construction, would run out of cash by the end of August, idling 700,000 construction workers at the height of construction season.  Some states are already cutting back or canceling projects due to lack of federal funds.

“While we are pleased the House is moving to avoid an immediate default of the Highway Trust Fund, we are extremely disappointed the bill is crafted in a way that will make it more likely Congress will not consider a longer-term surface transportation bill,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind wrote to lawmakers.

“We find this decision difficult to understand,” he added.  Wytkind said the short-term fix “represents an abdication of responsibility to meet our nation’s most basic transportation needs, sustain economic growth, and create and maintain jobs in this still-fragile economy.

“By extending the trust fund to next May, this ‘kick the can down the road’ proposal will likely result in a series of short-term extensions that undermine the ability of states to invest in transportation projects, increase business uncertainty, and impede job creation,” he added.

“The tough decisions on financing and policy are not a mystery, and putting them off until the next Congress will not summon new wisdom.  To the contrary, further delay will only maintain the status quo: Keeping workers off the job, undercutting long-term planning and hindering the country’s advance to a 21stcentury transportation system,” he concluded.

Like Obama, Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan was blunter.  Though backing the short-term fix – Obama said he would sign it – both said lawmakers shirked their duties.

The Laborers lead the campaign for a long-term highway-mass transit law, funded by raising the federal gas tax.  The tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t increased since 1993 and has lost value to inflation and more fuel-efficient vehicles.  Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., leads the argument for a 2-year 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike.  The House GOP says “no.”

“While America should be relieved that Congress appears to be moving to prevent a complete collapse of the Highway Trust Fund next month, law-makers have no excuses for abdicating their responsibility to pass a long-term, full-investment bill,” O’Sullivan said.

“The direction Congress is moving does nothing to address the safety of motorists, jobs at risk and economic competitiveness.  One in four of our nation’s bridges will remain deficient or obsolete.  Poor road conditions will continue to contribute to a third of traffic fatalities – about 10,000 lives needlessly lost each year.

“There is still time to pass a long-term reauthorization this year, but Congress needs the courage to get past politics, to find the ability to lead and to develop the will to make our roads and bridges safe by fixing them – not duct-taping them,” he said.  “Too many in both chambers cower at the thought of taking a vote that will actually move our nation forward.”

Obama also demands Congress pass a long-term highway-mass transit bill, as the Democratic-run Senate Environment and Public Works Committee already has – at least for the highway portion.  But Obama parts ways with labor on raising the gas tax.  He wants to fund additional highway-mass transit spending from corporate tax reform and other sources.

“Do something!” Obama demanded on July 15.  “If you don’t like what I sent up there, come up with a plan of your own.  But don’t just sit there.”  As for the short-term fix he’ll sign, Obama added: “All this does is set us up for the same crisis in a few months…So don’t pat yourselves on the back for kicking the can down the road.”