Sep 26, 2003

Let's mind our own business

With the U.S. continuing to give aid overseas, the deadline for a new TEA-21 nears 12th hour

I'm jealous of what people have in Iraq.

Over there the U.S. is helping them restore life, which
includes the building and reconstruction of roads and bridges.

I'm envious of the attention the current administration is
giving to any foreign country. Is it going to take another terrorist attack in
our states for our leaders to blow the dust off the domestic policy, assuming
there is one? Wait, that may only lead to more Osama delirium overseas.

Like most Americans, I want to know why our economy continues
to huff and puff at a tiresome pace. I want to know why port cities like San
Diego have received little in terms of Homeland Security funding, money that
was promised to them immediately following 9-11. Like most highway and bridge
workers, I want to know why the reauthorization of TEA-21 is trying to fight
its way out of this political abyss of stagnancy.

Federal funding for highway and bridge construction will
cease at the end of this month. The Federal Highway Administration also will
cease to exist. And unlike previous years, the FHWA itself will have only $13
million of carryover administrative contract authority on Oct. 1. The amount
will cover about three weeks of basic administrative expenses, meaning payroll
but not contract services or rent.

The work stoppage is due to a change made by TEA-21 in the
Internal Revenue Code. It states FHWA "cannot approve any new projects or
allow the states to incur any other new obligations, including carryover
contract authority after Sept. 30. Further, FHWA will not be able to carry on
operations to reimburse states for expenses incurred against existing
obligations because FHWA itself cannot obligate carryover contract authority
for administrative expenses after Sept. 30."

Three legislative remedies are needed to throw FHWA back
into agency population:

* Title 26 of TEA-21 must be amended or a revenue bill
enacted to allow expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund for liquidation of
new obligations by states and by FHWA incurred after Sept. 30, 2003;

* New amounts of sufficient contract authority or budget
authority must be provided for administrative expenses to allow the FHWA to
continue to administer the federal aid program; and

* An appropriations act or continuing resolution would be
required to make liquidating cash available from the Highway Trust Fund.

Congress has known about this new TEA-21 provision for,
what, six years? In fairness, what it didn't know was how the economy--and
terrorists--would behave during the infancy of the new century. Still, this
nation received a spanking two years ago. With no hint of an increase in taxes,
those in the Senate and House had to be expecting a crib full of crying
departments in need of feeding.

Three reauthorization deals are on the table, which means we
are three eons away from passing a new funding bill. I appreciate those who are
trying with all of their might to tie any loose ends of a particular package.
However, the delivery man is waiting.

Congress is traditionally late when it comes to finalizing
anything of substance, often times resorting to a scab bill just to keep some
type of money moving.

But those who think a six-month or one-year measure will
help here may be swimming in too much optimism. This country is living
dangerously when they place DOTs in a state of apprehension. An unstable future
is much like an unstable bridge. Few are willing to risk a plunge, meaning less
will plan for big-ticket road and bridge construction items.

In the first half of 2003, new orders for construction
machinery totaled $10.6 billion, nearly 8% of total machinery orders.
Manufacturers' orders for construction materials and supplies of all types
topped $211 billion, almost 11% of all booked orders.

If the U.S. economy is to receive a new pair of long-distance
running shoes, those in power must step in and rescue one of its prized
industries. One thing is certain, road and bridge aid will continue in Iraq
come Oct. 1--free of debate and without feeble extensions.

About the author

Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges. He may be reached at [email protected].