What do road builders think of the new Congress?

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) What do road builders think of the new Congress? Attendees of the sixth annual Texas Transportation Forum in Austin got an earful about that Wednesday from Brian Deery, the Senior Director of the Highway & Transportation Division of the Associated General Contractors of America.

Brian Deery, Senior Director of the Highway & Transportation Division of the Associated General Contractors of America. (Video still from AASHTO)

Brian Deery, Senior Director of the Highway & Transportation Division of the Associated General Contractors of America. (Video still from AASHTO)

Just today AGC issued a renewed call for a long-term reauthorization bill, citing dwindling stimulus funds and industry job loss. But the Congress that would have to pass that reauthorization in the next two years seems more divided than it was for the last two.

Deery spoke for half an hour, and made passing swipes at the Obama Administration's agenda of "livability" and high speed rail, both endeavors which he finds to be unwarranted drains on highway funds. He was also highly critical of the recent rule change by House Republicans to allow raiding of the Highway Trust Fund.

Most of Deery's his comments concerned Congress, and he ended up making an interesting juxtaposition between John Mica, the Republican chairperson of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, and Barbara Boxer, the Democratic chairperson of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. It was hard to know which party—and which chamber—would be the construction industry's better friend, he said.

Excerpts from Deery's comments after the jump:

"The New Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is John Mica. He has already made very clear that he will not suggest nor will he support a gas tax increase. As a matter of fact, he would like the program to operate within the confines of the revenue that’s currently coming in. So what that means for the highway program is that there would first be an initial huge dro in the program because of the budget process, and then after that, in the out uears, 3, 4, 5, 6, it would be about a 15% per year decrease in the amount of federal funding that would be available.

"Now, I don’t think the first part of that’s gonna happen. I don’t think that they’re gonna allow the program to drop off a cliff the first year. But I could see, very conceivable, that putting a cap on the program, to let it fit within the revenue coming in, could be a very real possibility in this congress.

"Chairman Mica would like to do a lot of other things in the program, thought. He thinks that we can do a lot of reforms to the program to allow for states to get a bigger bang for their buck with their transportation dollars. First of all on the revenue side, he’d like to have some more creative finance initiatives. He thinks there’s a lot of private money out there that’s waiting to be invested in transportation infrastructure, and that if we provide the right incentives on the federal level, that that private money will come in.

"Now I know you have a lot of experience here in Texas with privatization, and it has been used somewhat successfully around the county. But I have my doubts that really the private money is going to be able to fill that gap between what the federal government is going to provide and revenue of the gas tax.

"Chairman Mica has his own ideas about reforming the program. One of the things he wants to do is expedite project delivery. He has what he calls his “437 Program.” 437, that’s the number of days it took Minnesota to rebuild the Minneapolis bridge. Remember when the bridge fell into the river up there and 14 people were killed? It took them 437 days to rebuild that bridge, and he thinks we can do that for every project in the country.

"Now for those of you in the construction business, you recognize that if you put all of the resources of your department of transportation, your construction industry, your resource agencies, and focus all of them on expediting a project, you can get it done in 437 days, regardless of how big it is. The problem is going to be translating all those kinds of initiatives across the board construction projects.

"So we’re looking forward to working with Chairman Mica to come up with some ways to expedite project delivery. I think a 437-day program is a little bit ambition, but we certainly have some ideas. Chairman Mica also wants to eliminate some of the non-transportation departments of the program. He thinks that over the years there’s been a lot of baggage that’s been added to the program that add to the cost. And frankly I can’t disagree with him. In your own mind you can probably click off 5 or 6. So that’s the good news. He really does want to reform the program.

"The other reform that he wants to make is with the environmental review process. He wants to see more authority given to the states to do the NEPA process, more coordination between federal and state agencies on environmental review, other things that are gonna get the program moving.

"On the senate side, Senator Boxer—she didn’t really want to focus on this [the last two years] so it’s been bit unclear exactly where she’s coming from. Although she’s said all the right things, from our perspective, on the revenue point of view. She recognizes the need. She comes from California, and California has huge, huge transportation needs. And she has stated on a number of occasions that as the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, she feels a real responsibility in helping her state and all states in meeting their transportation needs. So she’d like to see an increase in spending, an increase in revenue.

"She has talked about coming up with something other than the gas tax. A vehicle miles fee is something that’s been talked about a lot. I don’t think that that’s really ready to be implemented. She’d like to see it implemented sooner rather than later, but she’d like to see it implemented in what she calls “non-technical” means. Because there’s a lot of privacy issues and other things that are associated with VMT fee. But anyway, that’s one of the things she wants to look at. She wants to put something in the legislation that would introduce more pilot programs to see if we can’t speed that up. She’s also talked about possibly issuing a national registration fee on all vehicles. She’s also suggested that another possibility might be to institute a sales tax on new vehicle sales.

"So at least she’s thinking. At least she’s coming up with some new ideas about how to fund the program for the future. So she may well end up being our champion. She will be good on the revenue side. But on all those other issues that I mentioned with Chairman Mica, she’ll maybe not be quite so helpful. She’s a true environmentalist. I don’t think she’s gonna want to see any changes in the environmental review process. So we’ve got an interesting dynamic that’s going to be going on here between the House and the Senate."

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.