LiUNA op-ed: Think passing a highway bill is hard? Try building a highway

Republished from The Hill

By Terry O’Sullivan

Each day thousands of construction laborers go to work — and thousands more want to — building the critical transportation infrastructure of our country.

It is grueling physical work, often performed in the worst of heat, the dampest of rain and the most penetrating of cold. It offers physical exhaustion and physical dangers. It’s not the kind of job you can make excuses for if you don’t get it done. Yet it is the kind of work has led many a father or mother to say to their child with pride, “See that? I built that.”

If only Congress could say the same.

A year ago, Congress scrambled for spare change underneath seat cushions at the Capitol to patch the Highway Trust Fund, the main way our nation invests in its roads and bridges. The best Congress could do was find nine months of resources, all with the promise that the short-term measure would allow them time to develop a long-term bill to fix our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Fast-forward to today: Up against yet another deadline to act, Congress has passed another patch — the 32nd since 2009 — once again to buy more time, as if lawmakers didn’t know the last time they kicked the can down the road, they would come upon it again.

If construction laborers arrived at a jobsite and weren’t ready to work and do their job, they would rightfully be sent home. Yet that is exactly what Congress has done when it comes to the Highway Trust Fund.

The impact on America has been profound. Because of a lack of confidence in the long-term stability of the Highway Trust Fund, another summer construction season will end without the creation of additional family-supporting blue-collar jobs a stable fund can support. And needed long-term projects to enhance safety and boost economic growth will be left on the drawing board.

The Highway Trust Fund means real jobs and real money for real families. According to the U.S. Transportation Department, every federal dollar invested in transportation infrastructure generates an additional $2.54 in economic activity, and every construction job created to fix our roads and bridges results indirectly in the creation of 2.5 more jobs.

Fixing the Highway Trust Fund is about more than livelihoods and economic growth. It is, in fact, about saving lives. According to the independent transportation research group TRIP, poor road conditions, such as potholes, contribute to a third of all traffic fatalities, or about 10,000 needlessly lost lives each year.

The key cause for falling bridges and roadway deaths is not a mystery — it is because the federal gas tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, losing 40 percent of its value. It appears that many in Congress have calculated that adjusting the tax makes a stronger political talking point against them than being complicit in the deterioration of the very backbone of the nation. Democrats and Republicans appear to have become immune to our nation’s needs even when it costs lives, livelihoods and our place in the world.

Construction workers are ready to do their jobs. This Congress needs to do its job. It has many viable options to choose from.

Any further short-term Highway Trust Fund patches should be dead on arrival. Until Congress acts, they share responsibility for every bridge that falls, every death or injury from unrepaired roads, and every man or woman who remains trapped in jobless despair when there is great work to be done.

O’Sullivan is general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, with a half-million members working predominantly in the construction industry.

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