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Budget Battle Begins

Just in time for rabid discussion at ConExpo-Con/Agg 2011 comes President Obama's initial budget for transportation. On first glance, the numbers make your eyes pop. The Administration has outlined a six-year, $556 billion surface-transportation program that, according to an analysis by The National Stone Sand and Gravel Association, earmarks $336 billion to rebuild America’s highways and bridges, and comes with several sweeping changes in transportation policy.

The budget proposes $70.5 billion for highways and bridges for FY 2012, a $29 billion increase over the FY 2010-enacted funding level. Also, $27.65 billion of that increase is in "up-front" funding, intended to jump-start job creation and progress on highway and bridge projects.

But once you get past the excitement of a $556 billion surface-transportation program, $336 billion of which is devoted to highways and bridges, that's where the questions start.

  • How do we pay for it?
  • Why the emphasis on high-speed rail, when there just doesn’t seem to be enough support for this mode of transportation?
  • Is combining The Highway Trust Fund (renamed the Transportation Trust Fund) combining current highway and transit accounts with two new accounts for passenger rail and the National Infrastructure Bank a good idea? 
  • In an era where “limit government spending” is a catchphrase and a priority for newly elected legislators, will Congress finally see this for the economic-stimulus value it has and the critical public safety issues it addresses? 
  • Will the administration continue to let loud voices from the back benches frame this part of his budget as excessive government spending? 

Industry reaction has been optimistic, but realistic. Association of Equipment Manufacturers President Dennis Slater called the President’s budget proposal “a good start,” and stressed the necessity for bipartisan cooperation. Associated Equipment Distributors noted the proposal is “long on rhetoric, but short on the details.” ARTBA pointed out that the Administration’s budget provides no recommendations for generating new revenues.

When the first President Bush signed ISTEA, the authorization was for $158 billion. When President Clinton signed TEA-21, the amount was $218 billion. The second President Bush signed SAFTEA-LU to the tune of $244 billion.

Much will transpire before final numbers are decided upon, but $336 billion is a heck of a good place to start putting people back to work rebuilding America.

Mark S. Kuhar, editor
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Member: Construction Writers Association