By Taylor Kuykendall
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives visiting Beckley Monday said they are hoping for quick passage of a bill to reauthorize federal surface transportation programs.
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is conducting hearings across the nation to hear testimony related to federal programs that fall under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The act was set to expire Sept.. 30, 2009 but was extended through March 4, 2011.
Monday’s hearing in Beckley was the first in a series organized at the “urging” of Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat on the committee. Rahall has an office in Beckley and represents West Virginia’s third congressional district.
“I think all of the panelists did an excellent job of presenting to our committee the unique problems we have in West Virginia when it comes to transportation needs,” Rahall said. “Our terrain, the difficulty in building roads, the unique challenges we have. That’s what I wanted the committee to hear and I think they heard it in expert fashion.”
Rahall said reauthorizing the Transportation Equity Act will be a vital step forward for the nation, and he is hopeful passage will come within the year. He added that passage would not be without challenges due to the current political climate.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the transportation committee, said he is optimistic about passage.
“Working with Mr. Rahall, I think we’ve got a good opportunity to, in a bipartisan manner, build the country’s infrastructure and to authorize these programs for a long-term,” Mica said.
Bipartisanship among transportation committee members was also noted by Rep. Mazie K. Hirona, D-Hawaii, also a member of the committee.
“We all have transportation needs in our state,” Hirona said. “This is a committee that is very bipartisan.”
At least one seemingly partisan issue — earmarking federal dollars — heavily affects the transportation committee. Republican senators installed a moratorium on earmark spending late last year. Neither party in the House took up similar moratoriums.
Rahall said earmark spending is an essential function of government.
“These earmarks ... are important. I strongly believe that an elected representative knows his or her district better than an unelected bureaucrat in Washington, or even the President of the United States,” Rahall said. “If we were to eliminate such a process as earmarking, we would be empowering those unelected bureaucrats in Washington and/or the President of the United States.”
State Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, gave testimony at the hearing from the perspective of his role as executive director of the Coalfields Expressway Authority. The Coalfields Expressway, a proposed 112 mile four-lane highway has received funding of about $185.68 million, mostly federal appropriations.
“All of this money has come from federal earmarks. We have never ever used one penny of federal discretionary dollars ...” Browning said.
Browning noted that in the 2000 Census, six of the top 10 population loss counties were in southern West Virginia. He said projects like the Coalfields Expressway would bring economic development to the region.
Browning also warned Congress members against reducing funding for any type of transportation and identified Beckley as a prime target for intermodal hubs that will utilize ground and air transportation.
Rahall said West Virginia has been a good example of creatively financing projects.
“We in West Virginia, as many in rural parts of our nation have to these days, look at unique ways of leveraging scarce federal dollars in order to attract more dollars,” Rahall said.
Some examples of “creative financing” were explained by Mike Whitt, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, and Mike Mitchem, executive director of the King Coal Highway I-73/74 Authority.
In those projects, post-use coal mines are being utilized for road construction. In a deal with a land company and the coal company that will mine the area, about 6 miles of the King Coal Highway will be constructed without public funding until final stages. That section of road will be built at a cost of about $4 million per mile versus $28 million per mile if the private sector were not involved.
If the projects are to be completed, however, Whitt and Mitchem said the authorization bill must pass.
“I would ask for quick passage of the next transportation bill, which we hope will include funding for the King Coal and Tolsia Highway projects,” Mitchem told the committee members.
The federal surface transportation programs are funded by the Highway Trust Fund, which receives revenue from the federal excise tax on gas and fuel. During the hearing, committee members and state officials discussed raising the federal gas tax to meet increasing needs.
The current federal tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents.
Currently, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to dry up by 2013 if Congress does not find a way to increase revenue flowing to the fund. Finding effective state and local “innovative funding” strategies as a model for federal programs is among the committee’s goals during their tour.
Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., mentioned the possibility of rewarding contractors who complete projects on time. He also suggested possible rewards for states that are able to maintain their highway systems.
Paul Mattox Jr., commissioner of highways at the West Virginia Department of transportation, said West Virginia has the sixth largest state-maintained highway network in the country. About 92 percent, more than 36,000 miles of roads, are maintained by the state.
Mattox also supported progress with the “critical” highway authorization act. He also stressed the need for public transit.
“Many West Virginians, particularly in the rural areas, are transit-dependent and utilize these services to get to work, the doctor, shopping and to take care of the necessities of life,” Mattox said. “The need for continued transportation investment in West Virginia is greater now than ever.”
Duncan also brought up concerns about economic development being slowed by environmental regulators. He said costs caused by environmental regulation have made the expense of projects “out of whack.”
“I know all these environmental radicals come from very wealthy and very upper-income families, but they are really hurting the poor and low-income groups in this country,” Duncan said.
The issue, hotly contested in the state and nationally, briefly brought about the only apparent point of disagreement among the committee members on Monday. While many are pushing to limit the power of agencies such as the EPA, others are hoping industry and economic development is closely regulated to prevent environmental destruction.
“I think I have a slightly different perspective on these so-called ‘environmental radicals,’” Hirona said. “I’m not a fan of environmental radicals, but I am a fan of people who care about our air quality and water quality.”
Rahall emphasized the job-creating benefits of the reauthorization act. He said passage would boost the economy beyond the capabilities of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Mike Clowser, executive director of the contractors association and Andrew P. Nichols, program director of intelligent transportation systems at the Nick J. Rahall II Appalachian Transportation Institute at Marshall University also gave testimony to members of the transportation committee.
“Everyone is here today because we understand the value of capital investment,” Clowser said. “We understand infrastructure improvements are critical to support commerce and to improve efficiency and economic competitiveness. We also fully comprehend that if we don’t repair roads and bridges in a timely manner, we will be forced to rebuild them at a cost that may be five times higher than what it would have cost to repair them.”
“In my opinion, the best second stimulus we could ever do is to reauthorize the robust transportation bill,” Rahall said. “To me, that trumps any second ARRA bill that may be considered.”
Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, also attended the meeting. Following the hearing, he commended Rahall for bringing the committee to local officials.
“I really appreciate Rahall bringing this committee to southern West Virginia, to Beckley in particular. Congressman Rahall has a lot of credibility on this issue, transportation,” O’Neal said. “He’s made a career of trying to improve roads and transportation in our district.”
After the hearing, Mica said he learned a lot about the tremendous needs for West Virginia infrastructure and applauded the state for maintaining such a high percentage of state infrastructure. He said he also learned a lot about local private/public partnerships, environmental concerns and intelligent transportation systems.
“We’ve learned that we’ve got to do more with less,” Mica said. “We know we’re going to have less funds.”
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