Open wallet or empty wallet?

By |  February 14, 2014

Passage of a near-trillion-dollar farm bill this month gives hope to many of those in our industry advocating a large, multi-year, transportation-funding bill to replace the current legislation, which expires Sept. 30. My pessimism regarding the passage of such a bill has been owing to the recent reluctance of Congress to vote through long-term legislation with large price tags. Passage of the farm bill might be a sign that things in Washington are changing.

Pam Whitted, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs at the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA), told me that passage of both the Water Resources Reform & Development Act and the farm bill are positive signs.

Still, there is no guarantee that a huge highway bill will happen, especially in this, an election year. During an NSSGA webinar, Whitted quoted former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood as recently saying last week, “There’s no way that a reauthorization bill can pass before the mid-term elections in November.”

And it appears states aren’t holding their breath, either. In his Innovation Briefs newsletter, Ken Orski says, “There is a quiet revolution in transportation funding happening these days. Faced with a depleted Highway Trust Fund and uncertain prospects for more money from a deficit-conscious Congress, many states are taking matters into their own hands and aggressively pursuing more fiscal independence.”

Orski cites a survey his staff recently conducted that suggests large funding initiatives are underway in 18 states. And, he says much of this is driven by public/private partnerships. “All of the nation’s privately owned infrastructure has been, and still is, financed by borrowing front-end capital and repaying it over time rather than by relying on current cash flow,” Orski says. “Now, states are adopting the same approach toward public infrastructure, convinced that they no longer can count on a guaranteed steady and generous flow of federal transportation dollars.”

Orski concludes that with states finding a way to fund transportation infrastructure improvements, Congress may see less of a need to pass an expensive long-term bill. “A one- or two-year measure funded at current spending levels now appears as a distinct possibility according to congressional sources that include Senators James Inhofe, Roy Blunt and Carl Levin.”

And, while passage of the big farm bill could be looked at as a sign Congress is ready to open its wallet, it could also mean that the wallet is now empty.

About the Author:

Darren Constantino is an editor of Pit & Quarry magazine. He can be reached at

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