Opposition remains strong in many corners to a White House-directed effort to put off a vote on the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, commonly referred to as the “highway bill,” for nearly two years.

The Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee approved by 18-1 an 18-month extension of federal highway programs from October of this year through March 2011; a policy President Obama’s administration strongly supports. Yet that delay is drawing fire from state transportation executives, business groups, and even civil engineers as they fear such temporizing may only worsen transportation infrastructure issues.

“We have serious concerns about … delaying action on this critical legislation,” said D. Wayne Klotz, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). “The nation’s highway and transit network is facing a myriad of challenges. [Our] 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure graded Roads at a D-, Transit at a D, and Bridges at a C. Additionally, we estimate that it will require a five year investment of nearly $1.2 trillion to bring just these three categories up to an acceptable condition.”

Klotz also noted that, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2009 Urban Mobility Report, traffic congestion in major metropolitan areas imposes $87 billion each year in lost productivity and wasted fuel costs. “These challenges will not solve themselves and will only get worse over the next 18 months,” he said.

"Now is the time to drive infrastructure improvements that work for people and the businesses that serve them by supporting jobs, speeding commerce and enhancing safety," said Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "America's transportation system is aging and increasingly incapable of supporting the 21st century economy. Congress and the Obama administration need to make passing highway and public transportation reauthorization a top priority."

However, Senator Barbara Boxer's (D-CA), Chairman of the EPW committee, doesn’t see it that way.
Her committee’s 18-month extension of the current highway bill – the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users” or “SAFETEA-LU” – maintains funding at 2009 levels while giving Congress time to develop what she calls a “transformational transportation bill with a stable, reliable funding source” for the future.

A DOT spokesperson told FleetOwner that this extension offers “an opportunity” to initially put in place a limited set of carefully thought-out reforms that can eventually form the basis for further reforms in a full six-year reauthorization.

Yet other groups contend putting off reauthorization now might close that window of opportunity on reform.

“Having a long-term program in place for six years as opposed to 18 months is in the best interest of planning and investments,” said Brian Deery, senior director of highway and transportation building division at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

“The feeling that you can put this off for 18 months then come back and solve all the [transportation funding] problems is simply not realistic,” he told FleetOwner. “In 18 months, we’ll be dealing with a new Congress, so we’ll in some ways need to start over from square one to get back up to where we are now on the highway bill. Besides, who knows what the next crisis will be? Something else may arise that again delays work on highway funding.”

All of that is critical, Deery stressed, because highway construction requires significant investment in equipment, material, and people – and uncertainty about future funding levels may leave companies leery of investing in those resources.

“A six-year bill gives you the projected funding level a contractor needs to justify investments,” he explained. “When you realize the least-expensive piece of equipment a highway contractor buys is around $100,000, with some costing more than $1 million, you need a stable outlook for business in order to pay for all of that.”