7/24/2014 — 

SENATE FLOOR STATEMENT

Mr. REED. I wish to support the short-term reauthorization of our national surface transportation law. It is urgent that we keep the highway trust fund solvent to avoid a shutdown of work on our highways, bridges, and transit systems.

A recent letter from 62 national organizations, including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the American Public Transportation Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Laborers' International Union, echoed the White House's warning: If we don't shore up the trust fund, we put at risk 100,000 construction projects that support more than 700,000 jobs, including 3,500 jobs in my home State of Rhode Island.

We have to save these jobs, but I have to say that the legislation before us is inadequate on two fronts.

First, instead of a short-term bill, we should be undertaking a long-term extension of transportation funding to provide certainty to the States and create much-needed jobs.

Second, the House version of this bill uses the very offsets that House Republican leaders rejected when they were included as part of my bipartisan legislation to extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. House leadership has used every excuse to deny these benefits to people who have been hurting for months, invoking increasingly problematic conditions.

I, for one, will not stop working to help people who, despite their best efforts, find themselves without the opportunity to find work.

We need this patch--even though it is not the preferred solution--to avoid a virtual shutdown of construction throughout the country and prevent further job losses. But the mere fact that the trust fund is so close to becoming bankrupt has already had an effect. Last month, Moody's downgraded the ratings on the GARVEE bonds for 26 transportation agencies.

In Rhode Island our Department of Transportation has about $67 million of projects on hold because of the uncertainty about the trust fund. These are projects that could put people to work in a State that unfortunately is tied for the highest unemployment rate in the Nation. There is more work the State wants to move forward on that would create more needed jobs, but we can only do that with a long-term reauthorization bill.

With only a few months of funding under this so-called patch, Rhode Island will be able to start little--if any--new construction. Instead, the trickle of Federal funding will pay back debt from projects that have already been finished and keep ongoing projects from stopping. It will support some design work that could help keep contract designers from going out of business, but it won't get much new construction started.

So my State and others across the country are forced to wait in a very costly holding pattern. Only a bill that invests significant resources over multiple years can provide this certainty for States and help get new projects underway.

That was the point made by Secretary Foxx and 11 former Secretaries of Transportation in a letter just a few days ago, noting that we are more than a decade removed from the passage of the last long-term transportation reauthorization bill.

Another point the Secretaries make is this: While long-term certainty is essential, greater Federal investment is needed to ensure our transportation infrastructure meets the needs of our people.

As a nation, our transportation infrastructure system is in desperate need of improvement. The most recent report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave both our roads and transit systems a grade of D.

Our aging infrastructure doesn't get as much attention in the media as other issues until the worst happens, such as the collapse of major bridges in Minnesota in 2007 and Washington State last year. But there are structurally deficient roads and bridges in every State, bridges that millions of Americans drive across for work or travel, that companies use to transport products, and that our schoolbuses drive over with our children.

Aging infrastructure is a major challenge for Rhode Island, which has the highest percentage of roads that are in poor condition and the highest percentage of bridges that are deficient or obsolete according to the American Society of Civil Engineers and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In the last 5 years, Rhode Island has had to act to replace two major bridges on the I-95 corridor. Luckily, the State has been able to take action to avert a disaster, but it hasn't been easy. One of these bridges, the Pawtucket River Bridge, was effectively closed to all large trucks for several years until it was replaced. The other, the Providence Viaduct, which is currently being replaced, has required boards to be placed beneath it in order to protect traffic and passersby below from falling concrete.

Each year, these kinds of deficiencies cost American families $120 billion in extra fuel and time, according to the White House. Businesses pay $27 billion annually in extra freight costs, which then get passed on to consumers. In Rhode Island, the poor road conditions cost $496 million each year in added vehicle repair and operating expenses, which is over $650 per year for each motorist.

To tackle the significant challenges to keep our roads, bridges, and transit in a state of good repair, States such as Rhode Island will need a strong Federal commitment. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we need to increase our surface transportation funding at all levels of government by $846 billion by 2020 to restore our transportation system to a state of good repair and meet the demands for our growing population and economy. Without more investment, we increase the chance of another infrastructure failure and we create inefficiency in our economy.

Federal funding is critical for all our States in meeting that challenge, but it is especially important for States such as Rhode Island that struggle to generate their own funds for infrastructure. Indeed, stagnant Federal support will make it harder for States that are struggling economically to share in our national prosperity, running the risk of increasing economic inequality among States.

However, with added investments in infrastructure, we can improve freight, roads, and transit systems, meaning commuters will make it to their destinations more quickly and safely while businesses save on shipping goods.

Too many times in the past, the Republican leadership in the House has exploited deadlines like this to engage in brinkmanship, shutting down the Federal Government and bringing the country to the edge of default. In part because we haven't had a manufactured crisis in the last several months, we have seen some good signs in our economy, and so I am encouraged we will not see a shutdown of work on our roads and bridges this summer.

But again, averting disaster shouldn't be our goal. We need to press ahead with a multiyear reauthorization bill to create jobs and improve our economy. Unfortunately, when it comes to helping American workers and our economy, Republican leaders, particularly in the House, have stalled progress.

Indeed, we have seen Republicans block several measures that would help strengthen our economic recovery. As I discussed earlier, House Republicans refused to act on restoring emergency unemployment insurance, despite the fact that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a year-long extension would generate 200,000 new jobs. Republicans have also blocked our efforts to raise the minimum wage, let borrowers refinance their student loans, pass a paycheck fairness bill or an energy efficiency bill. We need long-term solutions to all of these issues.

In my view, we should make this extension--the one we are considering now--as short as possible to increase the likelihood that we can pass a long-term bill that increases

our investment in our transportation system. Regardless of the duration of this short-term bill, we should be working to address the issue before the end of the year. As Secretary Foxx and his predecessors admonished:

What America needs is to break this cycle of governing crisis-to-crisis, only to enact a stopgap measure at the last moment.

The Secretaries made another important point. They wrote this:

Until recently, Congress understood that, as America grows, so must our investments in transportation. And for more than half a century, they voted for that principle--and increased funding--with broad, bipartisan majorities in both houses. We believe they can, and should, do so again.

We should follow their advice.