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Senate passes highway bill, but rough road ahead in House

After years of delay, the Senate passes a two-year highway bill to help fix the nation's roads, bridges, rails, and ports. But rifts in the House could delay passage.

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For the largest transportation projects, even a two-year bill doesn’t give much clarity on things to come, considering that completion times can be a decade or longer.

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“Ideally we’d have a longer bill,” said Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation and infrastructure at the US Chamber of Commerce. “Because capital projects take a long time to plan and execute and for state and local [governments] who receive these funds, they need as much time horizon as they can to do major capital planning.”

This has knock-on effects. When governments waffle on projects, equipment manufacturers and distributors have a tough time convincing customers to make investments in their machinery. Workers, too, have good reason to want Congress to hit the gas: The long-suffering construction industry stands at 17 percent unemployment

Should the bill pass as something similar to the current Senate version, it will have a number of improvements that will boost business, say many policy observers.

  • The bill consolidates federal transportation programs from roughly 100 down to a third as many.
  • It speeds up the delivery of projects by cutting back on regulations.
  • It offers more flexibility to states to partner with the private sector on infrastructure projects like privately funded roads.

Once famous for being stuffed with funds for members’ pet projects, the bill’s lack of earmarks and more efficient regulatory processes “will stretch every dollar farther,” said Ms. Kavinoky. “You don’t have to worry about the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem.”

Yet that same legislative pork once greased the congressional skids for a bill that was a sure-fire winner in Washington.
“This used to be the easiest bill to pass on Capitol Hill,” Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois told reporters last week. “That’s why the House Public Works Committee [now known as Transportation and Infrastructure] has so many members – people couldn’t wait to get on that committee to pass this bill every five years.”

Amid today’s gridlock, however, it's perhaps pressure of the down-to-the-last-second variety that has replaced pork as the ultimate political lubricant.
“We also do best when our backs are against the wall in Washington,” Mr. Mullett of Con-Way said. “The backs are kind of against the wall here.”

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