Congress’ Last Chance To Get In Gear On A Transportation Jobs Bill

Isaiah J. Poole

A Senate-House conference committee is scheduled to meet today to hammer out differences between the two chambers on what is likely to be the most substantive jobs bill the Congress could pass this year: a surface transportation reauthorization bill.

The best thing that the conference committee could do is to summarily discard the ideological middle finger that is the House bill and throw its weight behind the Senate bill, which at least has the virtue of being a result of serious, bipartisan compromise.

That way, states and localities could get on with the business of launching needed transportation projects that will put nearly 3 million people to work trying to make our roads, bridges and public transportation safer and more efficient.

The impact of not having a robust transportation bill hit home last week when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the economy produced scant jobs in heavy construction. Unemployment in the construction industry was 14.5 percent in April.

Meanwhile, there was a loss of 11,000 jobs in the transit sector. In the past year there has been 4 percent decline in transit industry jobs; many of those job losses are attributable to cuts in transit subsidies by state and local governments.

The Senate transportation bill, as I wrote in April, is a tank half-full. It would only authorize $109 billion over two years for maintaining the nation’s surface transportation network. That’s small in the context of what the American Society of Civil Engineers calls a $2 trillion catalog of needs. But it is a significant step forward when compared to what the House Republicans passed, which was not so much a serious transportation bill as it was a vehicle to stick it to the Obama administration and, by extension, people who care about a sustainable and environmentally responsible energy future.

The House legislation includes authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline, short-circuiting efforts by the administration and some communities affected by the pipeline to ensure that it does not subject them to a Gulf oil spill-style environmental disaster. It also includes language that would prevent federal regulation of the disposal of coal ash, a toxic waste product of coal power plants that includes arsenic, mercury and lead. And it would severely truncate environmental reviews of large transportation projects, and in some cases transportation projects could be launched without any environmental review at all.

The House bill fulfills the dreams of power plant owners, who don’t want to pay for responsible and safe disposal of their waste, of oil companies rushing to cash in on Canadian oil shale that will be shipped through the U.S. for sale on the world market (and not directly into U.S. gas tanks), and an unholy alliance of construction company lobbyists and red-state transportation department directors who disdain the idea that transportation projects should be built in a way that satisfies the concerns of the people who must live with the day-to-day effects of these projects.

The Senate got one thing right when it rejected efforts by its own conservative caucus to inject these provisions into its bill. Now the conference committee faces this choice: Will it send to the full Congress and the White House a bill that will create and sustain an estimated 2.9 million jobs, or will it insist that those jobs come at the price of putting our environment and our health at risk, just to satisfy an extremist right-wing, anti-government agenda that suits corporations that do not want to held to account for their behavior?

Tell the members of the conference committee that the answer is clear: Pass the Senate’s two-year bill. Then resolve next year to do even more, with a long-term, adequately funded plan to bring our transportation network fully into the 21st century.

Here are the members of the House-Senate conference committee:

Senate: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), David Vitter (R-La.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.).

House: Republican Reps. John Mica (Fla.), Don Young (Alaska), John Duncan (Tenn.), Bill Shuster (Pa.), Shelley Moore Capito (W-Va.), Rick Crawford (Ark.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), Larry Bucshon (Ind.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Steve Southerland (Fla.), James Lankford (Okla.), Reid Ribble (Wis.), Fred Upton (Mich.), Ed Whitfield (Ky.), Doc Hastings (Wash.), Rob Bishop (Utah), Ralph Hall (Texas), Chip Cravaack (Minn.), Dave Camp (Mich.) and Patrick Tiberi (Ohio); Democratic Reps. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), Peter DeFazio (Ore.), Jerry Costello (Ill.), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Corrine Brown (Fla.), Elijah Cummings (Md.), Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Tim Bishop (N.Y.), Henry Waxman (Calif.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.).

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