I’d like to start by thanking Chairman Boxer. With her leadership, and the great work of Senators Baucus and Vitter, we have put together a really good highway bill. I would also like to commend the staff from our offices for their hard work and dedication. What we have achieved here is very important for the nation.
A safe, efficient, and reliable transportation system is necessary to spur economic growth and job creation. However, our nation’s transportation system faces numerous challenges that are well-documented. Our bill will enable states and local governments to address these challenges head on and make much-needed improvements to the nation’s highways and bridges. Failure to act on this legislation is simply not an option. We cannot afford to put this off. Today’s mark up is a critical first step towards passing our bill.
I must point out that our bill still has a $12 billion shortfall. We are very fortunate to have the Chairman of the Finance Committee, Senator Baucus, working so closely with us towards a bipartisan solution. I will continue to support his efforts and work behind the scenes to help him with Republicans. The only way this bill will move forward is if it is fiscally responsible and does not add to the deficit.
I want to reassure my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that if for any reason the necessary funding isn’t secured, I believe we would need to go back to the drawing board. However, I am confident that Senators Baucus, Crapo, and the rest of the Finance Committee will find the needed funds. I am firmly committed to the funding levels and policies in our bill.
Lately, President Obama has attempted to turn spending on highways and bridges into a partisan, political issue, which it never should be. We worked hard to produce a bipartisan, compromise bill that maintains current levels of funding and makes a number of important policy reforms.
Anytime you are working on a bill of this magnitude, it is hard to reach a bipartisan agreement. And, as is the case with all compromises, nobody gets everything they want. There are some things I would have liked to see included or done differently and I am sure the Chairman feels the same way.
With that being said, I would like to highlight a few of the important reforms we were able to agree on.
The guiding principal behind this bill was to provide states with more flexibility while ensuring that a national focus is maintained. We also wanted to make sure taxpayers get the most for their money. To that end, the bill includes a limited number of performance measures that will focus the program more on real world outcomes rather than on inputs and bureaucratic processes. The bill also increases the use of bridge and pavement management systems to help guide decision makers in doing the right project at the right time.
The bill reduces the number of programs by 2/3, eliminating or consolidating those that are duplicative or don’t serve a national transportation goal.
One of the areas of greatest contention was transportation enhancements, or TE. This was a pot of money in the last 3 highway bills that could only be used for bike paths, walking trails, highway beautification, museums, and a number of other activities that I believe do not reduce congestion or improve the condition of our crumbling infrastructure. I would have preferred to eliminate this funding altogether, but Senator Boxer believes strongly in TE funding and activities.
Since one of the hallmarks of the bill is flexibility, the compromise was to keep many of the eligibilities, but to add some additional activities so that states were not forced to spend money on beautification when their infrastructure is literally crumbling. For the first time ever, a state like Oklahoma, that doesn’t want to spend money on the old TE activities, can now spend it instead on unfunded mandates, including stormwater mitigation, wetlands mitigation, historic preservation, Americans with Disabilities, Endangered Species Act mitigation, etc.
This bill also took some important steps to address delays in project delivery. These delays, which are often a result of the bureaucratic process here in Washington, not only drive up the cost of projects, but also waste valuable resources. In this bill, we managed to come to bipartisan agreement to streamline areas of the NEPA process through: creating more categorical exclusions; allowing for consolidation of NEPA documents; and most importantly, establishing real deadlines that require federal agencies to make decisions in a consistent and timely nature.
The bill also creates a new freight program, dramatically increases funding for safety, and makes TIFIA more attractive to rural states, like Oklahoma.
I am confident we are going to get this bill to the President’s desk. Last week’s votes demonstrated that there is a strong bipartisan majority in the Senate that supports creating jobs and strengthening our economy by rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges. And Speaker Boehner signaled that the House would consider their version of the bill before the end of the year. We must take advantage of this window of opportunity to pass our bill.
I would like to reiterate that this legislation is critical for my home state of Oklahoma and the nation. Failure to act will be devastating to jobs and the economy. Again, I commend the Chairman, Senator Baucus, and Senator Vitter for their efforts and I strongly urge my colleagues to support this legislation.