Senate Committee Backs Infrastructure Spending (But Not For Bike Lanes)

“We need to take care of this sooner than later,” Sen. Barbara Boxer said this morning in reference to a surface transportation reauthorization. “We can’t keep doing extension after extension.”

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Before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee even has all its members named (that should happen in the next day or so, according to Sen. Boxer), it held a hearing to get the ball rolling on a new transportation bill.

“China is building railroads that will be going hundreds of miles an hour,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), “while America retreats more towards the rickshaw.”

Top committee Republican James Inhofe is all in favor of a big infrastructure bill, but his brand of support includes limiting the scope of the bill. “Our problem in getting the bill we need to get is really not as much the Democrats as it is the Republicans,” he acknowledged. “‘Cause I can hear it right now. They will get it to the floor and say, wait a minute, we’ve got museums in here and these other things.”

Later he clarified that “these other things” are “state capitol domes and bike trails,” which let loose a flurry of trash-talking about bike trails. “I wasn’t aware there were things in the infrastructure bill that aren’t real infrastructure,” said Raymond Poupore of the National Construction Alliance, who was testifying before the committee. “I always thought it was just highways.” And Bill Dorey of the Associated General Contractors of America added, “It’s hard for me to defend a bike path.”

Inhofe suggested that getting back to a meat-and-potatoes highway bill was the key to Republican support. “The best way I can get the full cooperation of the Republicans is if we took this back to the way it was originally, when we had the highway trust fund and the people who paid to use our highways would confine it to maintenance, new construction, bridges, highways then that would be sellable to the conservative community,” he said.

Some Democrats did rush to cyclists’ defense. Boxer herself let it be known that “to me, a bike path is a way of transport; a lot of my people use it to get to work.”

And Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin “took issue” with Inhofe’s dismissal of transportation enhancements. “We need to look at multimodal transportation. Yes, the overwhelming amount of dollars that are reauthorized are going to be for the  traditional types of transportation, whether they be roads or bridges or conventional transit. But we need to look at smarter ways,” he said. Baltimore’s designer, he said, tried to connect communities through greenspace.

We’re looking at ways of trying to connect communities again so they don’t have to use our roads! So we don’t have to build so many roads! To me, that saves money in our transportation! And it’s the right investement for our nation. Every dollar that we authorize needs to be spent efficiently and appropriately for transportation in this country. But let us not be afraid to look at alternative ways that can save money, create jobs, and then have more dollars available for the expensive projects that we know we need to build such as high speed rail.

Other Democrats, while not exactly taking up the bike trail issue, declared their love of asphalt. Montana Senator Max Baucus, who chairs the Finance Committee and sits on EPW, celebrated the fact that Montana has more highway miles per capita than any other state. “We love our highways,” he said.

Another theme that came up was the possibility of selling infrastructure investment as a jobs bill for veterans. Susan Martinovich of the Nevada DOT and AASHTO said the unemployment crisis in the construction sector hits home for her on a personal level. “My son is a sergeant in the US Marine Corps, recovering from serious wounds,” she told the committee. “He and many of his fellow Marines spent time in Afghanistan building infrastructure. Transportation is an industry that could provide jobs for these warriors. And they’re jobs that they’re skilled to undertake, but they’re not assured to be there.”

Sen. Boxer was intrigued by the idea. Poupore added that his organization has a Helmets to Hard Hats program that could be a model. Look for more talk of this in the future.