House Republicans Fiddle While Bridges Crumble

Isaiah J. Poole

As of Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans were at an impasse within their own caucus on how to move forward on a surface transportation funding bill. There is a real possibility that, because of this impasse, federal funding for transportation projects would abruptly stop at the end of this week, with Congress out of Washington on a two-week recess.

Meanwhile, a “work crew” from LiUNA—the Laborers’ International Union of North America—was dispatched today to the Key Bridge, which connects the western edge of Washington to the northern Virginia suburbs. On their truck was a giant roll of duct tape, used to symbolically patch the 89-year-old bridge.

LiUNA chose Key Bridge because it is on the list of the nation’s more than 70,000 structurally deficient bridges around the country. That’s almost 12 percent of all of the nation’s bridges. The Department of Transportation ranks a bridge as “structurally deficient” if it needs “significant maintenance and repair” in order to remain a safe bridge to use. Often, a structurally deficient bridge must carry less capacity than it was designed to hold—for example, heavy trucks might be banned—in order to keep it from having to be closed altogether.

Key Bridge may not be in imminent danger of collapsing, but it is slowly crumbling, as House Republicans refuse to move forward on a sensible transportation reauthorization bill.

The Senate has passed a two-year, $109 billion bill that, while imperfect, buys Congress time to tackle the long-term issues that need to be faced about what our future transportation policy should look like and how we should pay for it.

House Republicans have proven themselves so far incapable of uniting around a way forward on these key questions, caught as they are between an ideological bloc that wants to use the transportation bill to push the fossil fuel lobby’s agenda for oil drilling and coal burning, and small-government ideologues who want to offload national transportation responsibilities onto the states and the private sector.

As an article in Politico indicates, there is more than a little bit of presidential-race politicking going on: “House Speaker John Boehner had dubbed highway funding the major jobs push of 2012 — something that Republicans would be able to run on.” And House Republicans don’t want to adopt the Senate bill because “The GOP needs a political and policy victory.”

But the House Republicans should be forced to answer this question: Is it more important to defeat President Obama, or is it more important to get the economy moving? If the goal is to make things politically bad for President Obama, turning your back on a truly bipartisan and short-term solution to the nation’s twin transportation and jobs crises makes sense.

If you care about the millions of people a transportation-funding shutdown would put out of work, the millions more stuck in traffic, and the possibility that a structurally deficient bridge might become a closed bridge—or a collapsed one—then the very least the House can do is pass the two-year Senate bill, and ensure that the economy keeps moving.

Update: The House late Wednesday scheduled a vote on a temporary extension of transportation programs, which would expire on June 30.

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