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February 10, 2016

A Concrete Effect — Literally — From Any Halt in Highway Funding


Construction crews work on an overpass along Highway 101 in Novato, Calif., in March 2012. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Democrats are staying resolutely on message as the Highway Trust Fund heads toward depletion.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, used the almost exactly same phrasing as Finance Committee chairman Sen. Ron Wyden, D- Ore., did a day earlier when he said, “This country is looking at the transportation equivalent of a government shutdown” if Congress doesn’t vote for new a new short-term funding source.

She added, “The crisis begins in July” when federal payments to the states will slow down “due to dangerously low levels in the Highway Trust Fund.”

A Ubiquitous Industry

Before Boxer began her news conference Wednesday with several transportation industry leaders, one of them, Robert Garbini, president of National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, told The Container that the impact of a federal highway funding hiatus would be felt every place in the nation because his $45 billion industry is ubiquitous.

“You can’t go to any small village or town somewhere that a ready mixed concrete truck can’t be reached by,” Garbini said. “There’s a ready mixed plant nearby somewhere within an hour and a half. There’s about 7,000 ready mixed plants around the United States.”

Although some roads may be made of asphalt, “somewhere in the building structure – bridges and culverts and everything else – you’re going to have concrete – so you can’t have an infrastructure without concrete,” he noted.

There are about 2,200 ready mixed companies in the United States with about 150,000 to 160,000 employees – “up from the downturn in 2008 and 2009, thank goodness,” he said. “The industry is recovering, but it’s not as a direct result of anything having to do with infrastructure, unfortunately. We’re creeping up very, very slowly. We need to have this fully-funded, multi-year highway bill in order for the entire economy to get moving again.”

He denounced “this whole stop-and-start thing” for federal surface transportation – “fund it for a while and then we have to go through this whole exercise again. The hurt’s already here” due to uncertainty about future federal funding.

Garbini said his industry benefited only “a minor amount” from 2009 Recovery Act, or stimulus. “What you had there was a lot of money that was used for repair, so it was kind of a Band-Aid. It did not really have new projects included in it, so that didn’t mean a whole lot of new ready mixed concrete going in.”

The S-Word

There is a midterm election this November, of course, and polls showed that last year’s government shutdown damaged voters’ views of Republicans. So “government shutdown” could be a useful rhetorical weapon for the Democrats as they seek to hold on to their Senate majority.

But Boxer argued that transportation funding ought to be non-ideological.

She noted that she and the staunchly conservative ranking member of her committee, Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, had been able to agree on a bill to reauthorize surface transportation programs for six years at current funding levels plus inflation.

“If Sen. Vitter and I can act as one,” she said, then “every single committee in the Senate and House can do the same.”

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