Although it's being debated 2,800 miles away, the federal transportation bill has crucial connections to Clark County and Washington state. At the local level, Congressional Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, serves on the House Transportation Committee, and in April was named to the conference committee that is struggling to reconcile House and Senate versions of the bill. At the state level, essential and long-overdue projects around the state — including the Columbia River Crossing — hang in the balance, as do massive amounts of funding for lesser projects, plus thousands of construction jobs.That's why the 47 members of the conference committee must set aside partisan leanings and agree on a new transportation plan before the current highway trust fund expires in less than two weeks. This ought to be an easy task. The Senate last year overwhelmingly passed a $109 billion, two-year transportation bill on a vote of 74-22. But no task is easy for this Congress. The bitterly contentious House has yet to formally vote on a five-year plan.
We hope Herrera Beutler flexes her collaborative skills and conference committee clout to help her colleagues reach an agreement. First, though, members of that committee will have to ignore the tendency of each party to blame the other. To wit:
House Transportation Committee John Mica, a Republican from Florida, blames Democrats. "I am disappointed in the fact that Senate negotiators have yet to move significantly on key House reform proposals. In addition, the Senate leadership appears unwilling to compromise at all on the Keystone XL pipeline."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week that not all House Republicans are to blame. "But there are 100 people — militants, radicals, extremists — who actually believe the federal government should not be involved in highways," he complained.
Herrera Beutler last month embraced — correctly, as we see it — the federal government's role in highways. She was quoted in a Columbian story: "Overall, whether it's our bridge or other infrastructure in our region, if it's a federal system, the federal government has a responsibility." But with federal highway funding set to expire on June 30, rhetoric must be trumped by reason … and quickly.
It's important to note that this issue is not about new funding. The transportation bill would provide money for projects that have already been approved. It's also valuable to understand that this responsibility used to be rather routine. The last major transportation bill passed in 2005 and expired in 2009, with stopgap extensions approved thereafter, making it almost impossible to make long-term plans for improving transportation.
Gov. Chris Gregoire's office has specified what is at stake if the deadline is not met: Almost 80 percent of federal aid for highway funding to the state would be cut in 2013 from projects that include 1,340 miles of paving, 34 safety upgrades and numerous minor projects. Considerable delays would affect major efforts such as the Columbia River Crossing, the new Highway 520 floating bridge between Seattle and Bellevue, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Is the conference committee courageous enough to place the nation's needs ahead of political gain? "I don't know that collectively they have an understanding of the impact it has outside, in a state," Gregoire said in a McClatchy Newspapers story.
In the meantime, transportation infrastructure continues to crumble while members of Congress remain fixated on each political party trying to destroy the other.