Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 7, 2016

‘Peer Counseling’ for Members of Congress on Highway Funding

State lawmakers were on Capitol Hill to do “peer counseling” Thursday with members of Congress on the need to put more money in the Highway Trust Fund so that states’ road building can continue in the summer construction season.

“We get to have a conversation that’s little bit different from the usual stakeholders. We’re almost speaking peer to peer,” said Minnesota state Sen. D. Scott Dibble, a Democrat, before he and other lawmakers who are members of the National Conference of State Legislatures headed to the Capitol to speak to their states’ congressional delegations.

“A lot of these folks, especially those who represent our own states, are folks we know really well. And we share constituents and we can bring that message, that we have shared constituents who really get it on transportation,” Dibble said.

“A majority of members of Congress and members of the U.S. Senate are former legislators, so we hope that we can deliver the message … and kind of maybe remind these folks from where they came,” said Oregon state Sen. Bruce Starr, a Republican.

They spoke to reporters Thursday morning before the news that the Senate Finance Committee had apparently reached common ground with the House Ways and Means Committee on a revenue proposal.

Despite what may be a reprieve from the highway funding crisis, there appeared to be no longer-term resolution of the uncertainty over federal funding that the states rely on.

South Dakota state Sen. Mike Vehle, a Republican, said, “My wish is that we can get through to folks [on Capitol Hill] that’s it’s critical that we have long-term solutions rather than have short-term extensions all the time.”

“The continued stop-and-start in the federal funding stream really takes a toll on the private sector” when projects are delayed or cancelled, said Indiana state Sen. Terri Austin, a Democrat.

“In a state like Indiana, where you have a window of construction — usually six or seven months, if you’re lucky — when we have to start cancelling projects, which is what we’re going to do in Indiana as a result of all of this, then you can’t just pick those back up when Congress says ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to solve this’ or ‘we’re going to put some more money in [to the Highway Trust Fund],’” she said.

“You’ve lost your construction window. So you have to wait a year. Sometimes 18 months.”

Vehle said right now only 2 percent of South Dakota state highways were in poor shape and 9 percent were rated “fair.” But “if you project that out with the amount of funding we have statewide now and if federal funding stays the same as it is now, in ten years we go to 25 percent ‘poor’ and 27 percent ‘fair.’ And when they’re ‘poor, you’ve got to dig them up and rebuild them.”

While South Dakota officials can make plans, “it makes it extremely difficult when we don’t know what our federal partner is going to do,” Vehle said.

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