Visit the American Road & Transportation Builders Association web site and you will see a Transportation Gridlock Clock. As of this writing, the clock had toted up 975 days, 14 hours, 32 minutes and some seconds since the last federal transportation funding bill expired. “Tell Congress to pass a robust highway and transit bill now,” ARTBA’s site pleads.
Everyone knows the nation’s infrastructure is in serious need of repair, including highways, municipal water systems and the power grid. The Department of Transportation estimates we should spend an additional $10 billion per year just to maintain the status quo, and an extra $79 billion to do all the work that is truly needed.
The Obama administration’s plan to jumpstart the economy and create jobs by tackling “shovel-ready” projects sounded promising at first. We’ve since come to learn that there really is no such thing as “shovel-ready” when it comes to the complexities of construction. The term shovel-ready now joins the list of infamous political catchphrases the likes of “mission accomplished” and “read my lips.” The only thing truly shovel ready is the pile of polemics emanating from Washington as the pro-stimulus and anti-spending factions in Congress cancel each other out and mark time until the election this fall.
To date, rather than coming up with a real plan to address the nation’s infrastructure crisis, Congress has passed a series of nine 90-day extensions to keep funds flowing to construction projects already under way. The Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion funding bill this spring, while the House voted down a five-year, $260 billion proposal, but approved a 10th extension. Congressional leaders are meeting in conference committee in hopes of finding some common ground. Officials from the Associated General Contractors of America say newly released construction employment figures should give them a new sense of urgency.
AGC reports that construction employment fell in May by 28,000 workers. Total construction employment now stands at 5,516,000, 18,000 higher than in May 2011, but still far below the peak of 7,726,000 in April 2006. “Instead of hiring workers for desperately needed improvements to the nation’s transportation network, contractors must wait to see if lawmakers pass more than a short-term, no-increase highway and transit bill,” says Stephen Sandherr, AGC’s chief executive officer.
Tom Danjczek, president of the Steel Manufacturers Association in Washington, is among the many insiders who are skeptical. “There is every reason to believe, given the current gridlock and funding problems in Washington, that we will get another extension and not a full transportation bill,” he says. “We can’t just keep kicking the can down the road.”