Passing a Transportation Bill is Job One, Congress

Gloomy news on the economic front, typified by last week's monthly employment report showing only about 69,000 jobs created in May. Our elected officials expressed concern about this: "Where are the jobs? How do we grow the economy? We need to put people back to work!"

Here's a suggestion: Pass the federal transportation bill.

In a rare example of agreement, both Republican and Democratic politicians get that the transportation bill is essentially a jobs bill. After all, passing a bill to fund infrastructure projects across the country will directly employ workers to build and repair roads, bridges, railways, runways and ports.

The nation's unemployment rate right now hovers above 8 percent. But it's even worse for the construction industry, with a jobless rate that currently exceeds 14 percent.

Yet here we are at the height of the construction season in America, with communities everywhere in need of infrastructure improvements, yet countless projects large and small are stalled for lack of funding. All Congress has to do to put Americans back to work is to pass the transportation bill!

[UPDATE #1: It's no wonder the powerful "road builder" lobby is stepping up pressure on Congress to pass the transportation bill A.S.A.P.  “The unemployment situation is bad, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t get this straightened out,” said Jack Basso of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.]

"Congress should have passed a bill a long time ago to put thousands of construction workers back on the job rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our runways," President Obama stated recently.

So what is the holdup? After all, back in February the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed bi-partisan legislation -- "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century" (MAP-21) -- that would allocate $109 billion over two years for the nation's transportation infrastructure needs. However, the House of Representatives failed to pass its own transporation bill. That forced the two bodies to pass yet another short-term extension of the current surface transportation law, which now is set to expire on June 30th.

A House-Senate conference committee has been trying to reach agreement on a bill to take effect after that. The negotiations are getting tense. That's because rather than taking the easy road -- passing the bi-partisan Senate bill, which represents the epitomy of compromise legislation -- the House lawmakers want to force controversial concessions.

[UPDATE #2: The Washington Post sums up the situation: "The transportation bill has provided a case study of a dysfunctional Congress, the failures of those who seek to find a middle ground and the struggle House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has faced in capitalizing on his party’s majority in the House. Old-timers have peppered the debate with reminders that sustaining the nation’s transportation system always had been a bipartisan effort, even when the two parties were at loggerheads on the burning issues of the day."]

As if it weren't bad enough that House Republicans want to shrink the federal transportation program at a time when our nation's infrastructure is literally deteriorating, their legislative proposals to date represent a parade of partisan horribles. Now GOP lawmakers are demanding that Senate conferees to sign off on measures which would streamroll environmental and public participation rules afforded by NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) in order to expedite highway building. In addition, they're trying to use the transportation bill as the vehicle to win approval for a provision that would prohibit the EPA from regulating hazardous coal ash waste from power plants. And they want to over-ride President Obama's decision to hold off on permitting construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline until environmental review is completed.

[UPDATE #3: 140 groups from the states of the 14 Senate conferees sent a letter to Congress opposing three provisions: Keystone, coal ash and NEPA changes designed to speed the project approval process.] 

Seriously? Republicans in Congress decrying a lack of jobs are holding the biggest job creating bill hostage in order to weaken environmental safeguards, stymie citizen input and pave the way for an oil pipeline. 

Even more ridiculous is the fact that pipeline proponents have the gaul to tout jobs as their reason for pushing it. They claim the project will create tens of thousands of jobs. This is false. According to the U.S. State Department, some 6,500 construction jobs would be created -- a good thing. However, a Cornell University study concluded that by reducing investment in a clean energy economy that already employs 2.7 million people -- meaning the pipeline would actually kill more American jobs than it would create.

Congress should be focusing on the jobs that would result from the transportation bill. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, passing the Senate bill (MAP-21) would protect 1.9 million jobs while boosting employment nationwide by an additional 1 million. That's 2.9 million jobs economy wide!

Here in Maryland, where I live, passing the Senate transportation bill would support an estimated 28,700 jobs (21,500 from highway funding and 7,200 from transit funding). The bigger the state, the more jobs at stake. (Take a look at the state-by-state job numbers.) Which is why Congress should do its job: pass the Senate transportation bill.