By Dennis Webb
Councilmember, City of Irving
At a time when there is no appetite to spend money on Capitol Hill, our nation’s surface transportation needs are in great jeopardy, a sign of big trouble ahead for all cities, towns and states.
That was the message at the City of Irving-sponsored national transportation and infrastructure convention held in Washington, D.C. last week, where for four days leaders from cities across the country heard how federal deficit and spending tensions among lawmakers threaten to affect all of us very soon.
What became clear is if nothing happens in Congress by March 31, current highway funding runs out, and all highway projects will come to a halt, including maintenance. There will be no way to pay for any highway improvements, as federal gasoline tax revenues will end.
In all, 27 members of Congress spoke at the transportation convention in Washington, sharing their ideas on how to avoid this looming setback. In its fifth year, those attending the conference from over 20 states held a national conversation about local transportation needs, sharing concerns and trying to persuade lawmakers to take action soon on highways, bridges, roads, mass transit and other projects.
Getting a long-term surface funding bill (which is supposed to be renewed every five years) has eluded Congress since the last bill expired in 2009. Since then, temporary extensions have been granted again and again.
Congressman John L. Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a 5-Year $260 billion funding bill, but it failed to get enough support among his party members, mainly those who oppose deficit spending.
Last week, while we were in Washington, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, rebelled against House tradition and gave the job of getting a transportation bill passed to Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., taking it away from Chairman Mica. Conservatives felt Mica’s bill contains too much deficit spending, which Mica estimates to be $15 billion. Boehner may accept a temporary two-year funding proposal put forth by the Senate or a more temporary extension while a compromise is worked out.
Where does this leave Irving, Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, North Richland Hills, Houston, Austin, Los Angeles, Miami and other cities? It is more important than ever to go to Washington, sit down with members of Congress and explain the dire needs in our community for transportation improvements, whether its roads, highways, interchanges, bridge replacement, light rail or even plans for high-speed trains or ports. And invite your member of Congress to come and see the needs in your town.
If Congress does not act, highways, roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate as our infrastructure problems grow. Nobody wants another budget impasse in Congress, another funding standoff like the one affecting the Federal Aviation Administration that lasted for a year of rancorous debate and a partial two-week shutdown. This time, cooler heads must prevail, and we must focus on transportation infrastructure as the proper expense that it is: an even greater investment in our future.
Nowhere is this focus brought more keenly to everyone’s attention than at the two transportation meetings Irving sponsors. The March D.C. convention is a prelude to the larger worldwide transportation summit that Irving has sponsored each August for the past 14 years. This summer the 15th meeting will be in the new Irving Convention Center for the first time, and will feature the DART Orange Line connection for participants to ride light rail to Irving’s convention hall.
Among the current gridlock of issues in Congress, none is more critical to solve than finding a way to finance the next five years of surface transportation spending. And at no time is it more important to a city than understanding what its leaders can do now to increase their chances of getting federal dollars to assist with transportation needs. My Council colleagues Joe Philipp and Rose Cannaday, city staff members along with our partners at the Irving Chamber went to Washington to reach out to other cities, encouraging them to join us in this critical time and move Congress to act in a positive way for our citizens and taxpayers. Our local members of Congress, including Eddie Bernice Johnson, Pete Sessions and Ralph Hall took time to join Congressman Mica, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and others to speak at the convention, and to listen to us.
Throughout the Washington convention week, many people praised the City of Irving for its progressive commitment to transportation needs, and its efforts to bring together visionaries, legislators, Congress members, private companies, local elected officials, educators and federal agency officials in strategic positions of national and international transportation. We are all looking for common sense, workable solutions. This is just too important to get mired in partisan politics and internal party disputes over national policy. In this case, national policy is very local policy, as close as the street running by your driveway or office.