Lobbying Group Seeks Long-Term Highway Bill, Not Another Stimulus

By Kathryn A. Wolfe, CQ Staff

When it comes to opinions about the wisdom of another stimulus, fiscal conservatives and at least one major road-building lobbying group agree that another short-term infusion of infrastructure spending is a bad idea.

Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), told a transportation conference this week in Los Angeles in advance of President Obama’s jobs speech Thursday that he is against another round of stimulus spending.

But that is where Ruane’s opinions diverge from fiscal conservatives, many of whom think the stimulus was bad because it spent too much money ineffectually.

Ruane says the stimulus was not wasted and saved unemployment from dipping lower than it otherwise would have. The problem as he sees it — then as now — is that stimulus spending detracts from the pressure to enact a long-term surface transportation bill, which ultimately will create more jobs and have more lasting economic impact.

“Unlike short-term stimulus, the multi-year federal surface transportation program requires states to provide matching funds in order to use federal dollars and helps drive investment in their own infrastructure,” Ruane said. “This type of net growing program creates new jobs and ensures progress toward meeting future needs.”

Ruane said the 2009 stimulus (PL 111-5) not only relieved the pressure on Congress to enact a long-term surface transportation bill, but also tainted infrastructure spending as partisan and set up infrastructure programs for “another unwarranted, but politically expedient, public relations pasting.”

The White House has been tight-lipped about the details of Obama’s speech, though some broad outlines have begun to leak out.

News reports suggest that Obama will call for hundreds of billions of dollars worth of spending on payroll tax relief, money for states to keep teachers employed, unspecified infrastructure investments and other items.

Republican messaging around the speech focuses on Obama calling for more stimulus spending, though there is little indication at this point about the specifics of what the president will propose for infrastructure.

There is widespread expectation that at least one component will involve an infrastructure bank to provide loans and possibly grants, which would require some kind of federal seed money but is far from direct stimulus money. Rather, the bank would be intended as an instrument to leverage public and private dollars for large projects.

The current short-term surface transportation law (PL 112-5) expires at the end of this month, and it is very unlikely that both chambers will be able to mark up, pass and conference a full surface transportation reauthorization before that time. That makes another extension a necessity.

Sen. Barbara A. Boxer, D-Calif., is preparing a four-month extension, which will be marked up in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., has said he will accept one more extension but then will insist that Congress complete work on a full authorization.