A looming transportation deadline

About a month ago, following the latest in a series of House Republican stunts, there was a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Association, which forced 4,000 workers off the job. The stoppage lasted two weeks before an agreement was reached.

It was, however, a temporary fix. As lawmakers return to work next week, waiting for them will not only be a bill to fund the FAA, but also a larger transportation bill that needs to be passed before the month’s end. President Obama helped raise the visibility of the issue at a Rose Garden event yesterday.

“At the end of September, if Congress doesn’t act, the transportation bill will expire. This bill provides funding for highway construction, bridge repair, mass transit systems and other essential projects that keep our people and our commerce moving quickly and safely. And for construction workers and their families across the country, it represents the difference between making ends meet or not making ends meet.

“If we allow the transportation bill to expire, over 4,000 workers will be immediately furloughed without pay. If it’s delayed for just 10 days, it will lose nearly $1 billion in highway funding — that’s money we can never get back. And if it’s delayed even longer, almost 1 million workers could lose their jobs over the course of the next year. […]

“It’s inexcusable to put more jobs at risk in an industry that’s already been one of the hardest hit over the last decade. It’s inexcusable to cut off necessary investments at a time when so many of our highways are choked with congestion, when so many of our bridges are in need of repair, when so many commuters depend on reliable public transit, and when travel and shipping delays cost businesses billions of dollars every single year.”

The transportation bill enjoys support from the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and leaders from both were on hand for the president’s remarks yesterday. Many Republicans don’t much seem to care, and are balking at the bill for a variety of reasons. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), for example, has vowed to kill the package unless bike-path provisions are removed from the bill. Other GOP officials are simply pushing for less public investment.

And as that debate continues — the parties are not yet close to striking a deal — the president also intends to make transportation spending smarter and more effective.

“We need to stop funding projects based on whose district they’re in, and start funding them based on how much good they’re going to be doing for the American people. No more bridges to nowhere. No more projects that are simply funded because of somebody pulling strings. And we need to do this all in a way that gets the private sector more involved. That’s how we’re going to put construction workers back to work right now doing the work that America needs done — not just to boost our economy this year, but for the next 20 years.

“Finally, in keeping with a recommendation from my Jobs Council, today I’m directing certain federal agencies to identify high-priority infrastructure projects that can put people back to work. These are projects that are already funded, and with some focused attention, we could expedite the permitting decisions and reviews necessary to get construction underway more quickly while still protecting safety, public health, and the environment.”

This isn’t an especially sexy issue, but the looming showdowns over the transportation bill and FAA funding are going to pretty damn important over the next few weeks, and the reform ideas Obama talked up yesterday are worthwhile. It’s an issue to keep an eye on.