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Good job on highways, Congress

<p>Steve Brawner</p>

Steve Brawner

Columnists like me don’t hesitate to write when we think Congress has done a bad job, and we have plenty of opportunities to do so. On June 29, however, Congress passed a pretty good highway bill, and that deserves a mention, too.

MAP-21, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, maintains highway funding at current levels (minus inflation) for 27 months without adding more to federal budget deficits than current spending does. It also includes important reforms that will make those dollars stretch farther.

The bill will continue Arkansas’ current funding levels for the last three months of this fiscal year and then provide the state a little more than a billion dollars total over the next two years. All six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation voted for it, and eastern Arkansas’ Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, served on the conference committee that bridged the differences between the House and Senate versions.

Before getting carried away, it’s important to note the context: This pretty good bill comes after three years of Congress doing a very bad job on highways. The last highway bill, SAFETEA-LU (don’t even try to translate that acronym), expired in 2009. For three years, highway departments and private contractors have been working with temporary funding extensions as short as a few weeks because that’s all Congress could agree to provide. That made it hard to plan projects that, you may have noticed, almost always take longer than a few weeks. Previous highway bills have funded operations for five or six years, not 27 months.

Also, this bill does nothing to address a thorny problem: Gas tax revenues that fund highway construction are rapidly depleting because cars are becoming more fuel-efficient (or not using gas at all). As is so often the case, that discussion has been put off to a later date.

But I come to praise Congress, not to bury it, so here’s what’s praiseworthy about MAP-21.

For starters, members of Congress cut other areas of the Department of Transportation in order to maintain current highway funding levels so they wouldn’t increase deficit spending. In other words, they set priorities and made tough choices. That’s fiscally responsible.

MAP-21 streamlines about 100 federal surface transportation programs by about two-thirds. That means that state highway departments and private contractors will be dealing with fewer federal bureaucrats with differing rules and regulations. It also makes it less likely that money will come marked for one purpose when Arkansas really needs it for another.

It also gives states more freedom to opt out of “transportation alternatives” – bike paths, highway beautification projects, etc. – and spend the money elsewhere. Under SAFETEA-LU, states didn’t have a choice but to spend that money where they were told to spend it. I’m all for bike paths (even when my six-years-younger wife is making me eat her dust while riding on one), but I prefer my state highway department have the freedom to fix a bridge if it deems that more important.

Finally, MAP-21 streamlines the process from planning to pavement. Currently, a major project takes six to eight years to complete under the best of circumstances and often much longer. MAP-21 lets the secretary of transportation set deadlines resulting in agencies losing their funding if they procrastinate.

Also, no longer must planners complete a lengthy environmental review process when repairing a road after a disaster or when expanding it in an existing right of way. A major environmental review, after all, already has been completed on those roadways.

Most important is that the passage of MAP-21 offers a glimmer of hope that maybe Congress can function as a deliberative legislative body. A consensus exists among Democrats and Republicans, as well as business and labor, that investing in highways and bridges is important.

But there were areas of disagreement. The Senate wanted more money, but for less than 27 months. The House wanted less money, but over the typical five- to six-year time period. They compromised, and for the first time in three years, we have a highway bill. A pretty good one, in fact.

Could members of Congress also come to meaningful agreements in other areas where many share roughly the same goals but disagree over the details, such as deficit reduction and energy independence? I think they can if, as MAP-21’s title suggests, they truly want the country to move ahead for progress in the 21st century.

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Steve Brawner is a Bryant journalist whose blog, Independent Arkansas, is linked at arkansasnews.com. E-mail him at brawnersteve@mac.com.

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