December 2, 2011

A Map to the Future

The next time you attend a social event, pay attention to the conversations taking place around the room. Sometimes, one or two outgoing people dominate the discussion. These are often folks who enjoy not only the courage of their convictions, but also a spotlight in which to showcase them. At a good party, these people engage others on a topic, and a broad conversation takes place. Conversely, an endless, one-sided monologue can send guests running for the door.

This is the scenario that comes to mind when I think of the current conversation surrounding transportation funding. In September, President Obama introduced the American Jobs Act, which has largely stalled in Congress. In early November, Speaker of the House John Boehner said that House Republicans will introduce a multiyear surface transportation bill before the end of the year. And, a few days after Boehner’s announcement, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee unanimously passed a two-year transportation bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21).

So the President, the House, and the Senate are all talking about the same issue, adequate funding for our nation’s infrastructure. The question is: are any of them listening to one another? And if so, how soon will they stop talking and start acting?

In terms of the President’s initiative, it very closely mirrors his original stimulus bill. While the $50 billion in transportation funding sounds great, the breakdown puts a little over half of that toward highways, with significant portions allocated to mass transit and high-speed rail. At the same time, the bill includes nearly $400 billion in other spending.

Boehner is pitching an energy and infrastructure bill. “Let’s link the next bill to an expansion of American-made energy production,” he wrote on a Sept. 15 entry to his blog (see www.speaker.gov/Blog/). According to his comments, the new funding channel would allow for funding levels at or above current spending.

On the Senate side, S. 1813, or MAP-21, would maintain current funding levels. It reduces the core highway programs from seven to five, consolidates the 90 existing federal programs to less than 30, and — significantly — eliminates earmarks. It also focuses on expedited project delivery.

Looking at all three of these options: many good ideas are being brought forward. The President recognizes the need to put the construction industry back to work. Boehner is looking at new funding mechanisms. The Senate is looking to cut fat and streamline time tables.

The right elements are there. Now, the folks at this transportation party need to start talking to one another and, equally importantly, listening. Now is not the time for allegations of class warfare or Congress ignoring public opinion. It’s time for our elected officials to do what they were elected to do and enact responsible legislation.

3 things I learned from this issue:

1. A cellular gateway allows for high-speed data retrieval for remote monitoring of loading and ticketing, page 25.

2. 3D laser technology can quickly create detailed stockpile profiles, page 40.

3. Bill Langer retired from the USGS, but continues his conversations in Carved in Stone, page 52.

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