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Mica: Congress Dithers as Economy Fails

Congressional efforts to reauthorize the nation’s surface transportation programs have stalled, and the “stimulus— has failed the American people. Unemployment has reached its highest level in over a quarter of a century.

While the economy continues to shed jobs, the nation’s transportation system continues to deteriorate. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we need to invest $2.2 trillion over the next five years to maintain and improve our nation’s infrastructure. And with 19.4 percent unemployment in the construction industry, there is no shortage of workers to help us take on the task of rebuilding our roads, bridges and transit systems.

A year ago — when the national unemployment rate stood at 6.6 percent — President Barack Obama and some in Congress called for a stimulus package, suggesting that it would help resolve our unemployment situation and get people back to work. Now, after piling almost a trillion dollars into this stimulus, the loss of 2.6 million jobs has pushed the national unemployment rate to 10 percent and our national debt has grown to more than $12 trillion.

These same voices are now calling for another multibillion-dollar federal injection despite the fact that only 14 percent of the Department of Transportation’s first round of stimulus funding has actually left the U.S. Treasury.

States and local governments have been slow to spend transportation stimulus dollars because longer-term and job-sustainable projects are often bogged down in bureaucratic red tape. States have had to focus their stimulus dollars on quick and simple projects to help get money out the door.

A recently released Government Accountability Office report found that 63 percent of highway stimulus dollars have been spent on repaving or pavement-widening projects. While these projects may be necessary to maintain our roads, they only provide jobs for a few weeks.

To complicate matters even further, the highway and transit programs have been operating under short-term extensions of the expired transportation law. These stopgap measures cripple the planning and predictability that state DOTs need for major construction projects.

While it would be ideal to complete a traditional six-year authorization bill this year, neither the Senate nor President Obama has been willing to take on such a task.

Action is needed now to help put Americans back on the job and to help states with ever-growing transportation challenges.

The most viable option, which I propose, is to extend the surface transportation programs for at least two years. This can be paid for using the current gas tax revenues as well as any unspent stimulus funds. This approach will provide adequate resources and the predictability that states and transit agencies need to manage their transportation programs effectively, and without raising taxes and increasing our debt.

We also need to take steps to cut bureaucratic red tape and eliminate redundant environmental reviews in order to streamline the project delivery process. Today, it takes an average of seven to 10 years to approve and construct major transportation projects. If we can cut in half the time it takes to complete these, we can save billions of taxpayer dollars and receive more infrastructure improvements for our limited resources.

After the Interstate 35 West bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007, Congress acted to ensure that it would be replaced quickly. The new bridge was contracted to be completed in just 437 days. There is no reason we cannot expedite other major projects across the country to create more long-term employment opportunities and provide significant improvements to our infrastructure.

We are in the midst of a national jobs crisis. Although red tape delays have hindered the project approval process for years, the need to address the problem is even greater now given our country’s current high unemployment rate. I believe Congress should provide the president with emergency authority to issue permits over the next two years for infrastructure projects that are bogged down in bureaucratic red tape. This will help states and transit agencies put people back to work almost immediately on significant transportation improvements.

Finally, Congress should encourage the use of innovative financing tools, such as public-private partnerships, that will go a long way in helping us better leverage our federal tax dollars. States that utilize innovative financing methods, such as state infrastructure banks, have been able to leverage their transportation dollars at a ratio of 10-to-1. We can no longer rely on an increasingly obsolete gas tax as the only means to finance our infrastructure. We must seize other opportunities to provide the level of investment necessary to build our transportation systems.

With, at a minimum, a two-year transportation authorization bill that speeds up the process for building significant projects and better leverages taxpayer dollars, we can provide states with some critical planning stability, provide time for Congress to reach agreement on an even longer transportation bill, and most importantly, provide the kinds of jobs for Americans that were promised but not delivered under the “stimulus.—

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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