US consultants and contractors have been urged to confront senators and congressmen over delays in finalising a $450bn to $500bn (£290bn to £324bn) six year transport funding package.
Legislation to confirm the spending commitment has been held up by arguments over how the record package should be funded.
Business and industry lobby groups want to raise the tax on fuel, but politicians have ruled it out in fear of alienating voters.
In the US, federal transport spending is formalised in a transportation bill, signed off by the White House every four to six years. Without a bill in place it is illegal to spend federal funds.
The last bill, which authorised £185bn of spending, ran until September last year. Since then transport planning has been in limbo, with limited funds allocated via a series of short-term extensions to the old bill.
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), which represents 5,000 consultants, contractors and suppliers, says the delay is “irresponsible” and has called on its members to take the issue up directly with politicians.
It has targeted the six week summer recess, when senators and congressmen return to state constituencies, to start its “unprecedented” grassroots action programme.
ARTBA president Peter Ruane issued the call to action last week at its 22nd annual Public Private Partnerships in Transportation conference in Washington DC.
“The US transportation design and construction market is terrible,” he said. “Unemployment in our industry is over 20% and all indications are it could easily get worse in the months ahead due to lack of work.
“Congress is not doing its job. It needs a kick in the ass.”
Halcrow director and ARTBA PPP Board chairman Brian Howells, backed Ruane’s call.
“I say this to you – don’t back down,” he said. “Pete [Ruane] is right, get out there and spread the message [that a new bill is vital] and PPP is part of that message.”
ARTBA is convinced that the investment should be paid for through an about 10p per gallon increase in fuel tax, the primary funding source for highways. The tax has not been raised since 1993 and has lost 30% of its value in real terms because it is not linked to inflation.
“Without a rise we are looking at 30% to 50% cuts in highways spending in the next two years,” said Ruane. “We have three unpleasant choices: dramatically cut spending and lose hundreds of thousands of more jobs; further add to the deficit; or raise new revenues of some kind.”
However US transportation secretary Ray LaHood is staunchly against raising the tax.
“Raising the gas tax is not an option,” he told the conference. “I don’t disagree with any of the spending that is on the table, but we are not raising taxes.”
LaHood said that funds instead would have to be raised through a combination of tolling, private finance and a proposed infrastructure bank.
But there is already disagreement over those mechanisms.
The US Senate committee working up the bill has chosen to omit a £2.6bn proposal that would have created a national infrastructure bank to fund large-scale transport projects.
The House of Representatives committee has also chosen to ignore plans for such a bank.
ARTBA is strongly in favour of private finance, but the concept has proved hard to sell to the US public and very few states are prepared to consider it.
And even with private finance, public sources of income are still likely to be needed for 85% of spending.
“By God, we’re almost doubling this thing [spending in the bill]. The only way we’re going to get this kind of increase is by showing some kind of reform,” Ruane said.
Federal funding is vital to US transport spending, with individual states’ transport budgets coming under intense pressure.
Currently 44% of highway and transport funding comes from the federal pot, with 32% from state governments and 24% from local county and city authorities.
Eleven states are known to be cutting spending on transport, with 13 more delaying individual projects.
President Obama’s economic stimulus package saw £24bn injected into roads spending. However, all but £390M of that is now spent or accounted for by live projects. More than 50% of the total package will have been spent by the end of this year, largely on resurfacing work.
ARTBA fears that if the bill is not passed by early next year it will be delayed until after the next presidential election.
“There’s talk of another three year extension [to the bill]. That’s a total joke. We have empirical evidence of why this must happen now,” said Ruane.
Before the bill can become law, the full House of Representatives and the full Senate must pass their respective versions, after which the two chambers must agree on a final bill. Only then can the bill proceed to the president’s desk for sign off.
The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill is one of 12 appropriations bills under consideration.
ARTBA is helping its members makes their case by producing a grassroots action guide detailing how to approach senators and congressmen and how to run the meeting. The guide has templates for introductory letters and emails and offers responses to frequently asked questions.
According to the US Department of Transportation (US DOT), £18.5bn more needs to be spent annually just to maintain highways.
One fourth of all bridges in the US are in need of repair, and 16% of core roads are rated “unacceptable” by US DOT.
A 2009 study by public health organisation the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found that poor roads were a major contributing factor in more than 22,000 highway fatalities and as a result cost the nation £141bn annually.