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Blumenauer: For Highway Bill, the Old Way Is Better Way

Congress is currently in the process of considering what many have called the worst transportation bill in history.

It breaks the 55-year Highway Trust Fund commitment that maintains safe roads, bridges and transit systems. It cuts financing for the passenger rail that is necessary to keep us competitive in the global economy while countries like China race ahead. It provides no protection or assurance that communities will have a say in their own transportation future, and it makes it easier to ignore environmental and safety concerns. It even eliminates the wildly popular and potentially life-saving Safe Routes to School program.

Advanced without hearings, this reckless proposal hit the relevant committees for action this week, literally a couple of hours after its release. At no point was there any bipartisan cooperation or negotiation, which marks a new low for what has long been a bipartisan process. And at no point were any hearings held to examine the serious consequences of upending 20 years of progress and reform on transportation.

It’s a sad state of affairs because this process should offer a unique opportunity for people who care about rebuilding and renewing America, jump-starting the economy and bipartisan cooperation to produce meaningful transportation reform that addresses our most urgent needs.

It is dangerous to violate the principles of the Highway Trust Fund, including the notion of “user pays” and the predictable, steady, long-term financing that can be relied upon and used to finance larger and quicker action. It is a tragedy to break the long-standing agreement first hammered out by Congress and President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s to establish a set-aside of 20 percent for the nation’s transit system, which doesn’t just help commuters but is also the quickest, cheapest, fastest way to get people off the road and keep gridlocked traffic at a minimum.

The good news amid this debacle is that across a wide spectrum of interest groups that are rarely in agreement, people have united in opposition to this tragically flawed and destructive approach, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, organized labor, environmental groups and the tens of thousands of small-business contractors who would benefit from a properly done transportation reauthorization.

They are joined by local governments, transit agencies and parent advocates who are committed to their children being able to get to school safely by walking or biking through the Safe Routes to School program that this bill inexplicably eliminates.

It has been exciting to watch the forces rally on Capitol Hill. A few brave Republicans have also stood up to intimidation from within their own party to fight for these critical enhancement programs, including Reps. Tom Petri (Wis.) and Timothy Johnson (Ill.).

There is no greater challenge to, and opportunity for, the strength of our communities, the recovery of the economy and the creation of family wage jobs than getting this infrastructure right.

Yet there should also be an opportunity to help heal our politics through this process because when you can get such a diverse set of interests united and firm in the call for more funding for a broader vision, you would think that would be all the political “cover” and incentive that Congress would need to fix our ailing economy and crumbling infrastructure.

As politicians begin gathering momentum for the seemingly never-ending campaigns when airways will be flooded with ads and when voters will be desperate for some sort of serious content, this is our opportunity as Americans to change the subject to something that matters.

With enough serious discussion, we may find out that our disagreements are not so wide and that there are opportunities and advantages to working together to rebuild and renew the foundation of our country’s prosperity.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is a member of the Ways and Means and Budget committees. He served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for a decade.

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