Delayed transport bill has 12,000 Minnesota jobs in limbo

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2011 - 9:19 PM

Eight state mayors urged Congress to extend the bill and its fees before they expire Sept. 30.

WASHINGTON - For Sandy Martin, the mayor of Shoreview, the transportation bill is not about congressional wrangling over spending and the deficit.

It's simply a matter of whether Shoreview residents will be able to get to and from work without huge delays.

"The day-to-day lives of people will be affected," Martin said. "These are not things that small local governments can take on."

Shoreview has waited 15 years for a highway project to ease congestion on the interstates surrounding the small city, Martin said. Weary of more delays, she signed a letter to congressional leaders of both parties, all but begging them to extend the transportation bill and transportation user fees before they expire Sept. 30. She was among 128 mayors from around the country to do so, including eight in Minnesota.

The bill would continue work on a variety of projects -- highway construction, bridge repair, mass transit systems, among others. About 847,000 existing jobs -- more than 12,000 in Minnesota -- would be disrupted if the legislation isn't approved. The campaign for the bill reflects the new reality in the nation's capital, where what would have been a routine extension is instead in limbo, as both parties debate spending priorities.

"There are no such things as routine matters now," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. "There is a specific Republican tactic to take what was routine and turn it into a confrontation. It will be true of the surface transportation act, as it was for the debt ceiling."

The office of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

In a statement posted on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee website, committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., committed to "one additional highway program extension." But he charged that Democrats, not Republicans, disrupted the process by not passing extended versions of the law while they controlled the House and Senate.

"During their control, they neglected aviation legislation for more than four years and left major transportation legislation in the ditch for more than a year," Mica said. "Republicans have offered positive and financially responsible alternatives to get these measures moving."

In a briefing Tuesday morning, senior White House officials called on the public to start applying pressure to members of Congress for a long-term extension of the transportation bill, just weeks before the government is forced to close down projects and lay off employees. A similar situation played out this summer, when Republicans succeeded in temporarily blocking extension of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill, forcing layoffs of about 70,000 workers at airport projects around the country.

"The first rule of economic development is hold on to the jobs you have," Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari said.

Ornstein sees the Obama administration being more aggressive on such budget issues than it was during the debt ceiling or FAA debates. The White House wants to "shape the narrative" before it comes up in Congress and voters blame everyone equally, as they did with the debt ceiling and FAA debates, Ornstein said.

"I believe there is real power in the bully pulpit of the presidency," Ornstein said. With the transportation bill, the administration is saying. 'Look at what they're about to do.' That could change the political calculus."

White House officials say failure to renew the transportation bill "jeopardizes" 847,924 jobs and 140,536 highway and transit projects. In Minnesota, the administration says that 12,170 people working on roughly 2,200 highway and transit projects face layoffs if the bill isn't extended.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak joined Shoreview's Martin in signing the letter to Congress, urging for the transportation bill's passage. The other Minnesota mayors were Elizabeth Kautz, Burnsville; Debbie Goettel, Richfield; Thomas Stiehm, Austin; Doug Anderson, Dayton; Tim Hultmann, Long Lake, and Janet Williams, Savage.

Rybak, a DFL Party member, blamed "extreme members of the House Republican caucus" for being more interested "in trying to score political points than take routine action to create jobs."

However the battle of words plays out, mayors on Main Street say they are struggling to keep the faith.

"I would like to be optimistic," Martin said. "But the track record of the last couple of weeks is that this is more about politics and less about good policy."

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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