Transportation bill offers rare opportunity for bipartisanship
by Nelson Balido
January 26, 2012
With fights over everything from health care to foreign policy to transcontinental pipelines, folks in Washington aren't agreeing on much these days. And those are just the disagreements between the parties. Tune in to a Republican presidential primary debate and you're likely to see more sparks fly than you would on the House floor.
And though the president's State of the Union speech this week was an aggressive and bold look at the future, we must focus on what needs to be accomplished right away. Those bold words need to be turned into action by the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.
But every now and then we get a small ray of bipartisanship in the daily squabbles, allowing everyone to find a small piece of common ground. We might be seeing such a case in the transportation arena.
Word out of Washington is that the House will soon take up its version of a long-term transportation funding bill. Having closed out 2011 with an unclear picture of a way forward on transportation, this comes as welcome news for border communities and trade advocates as we seek to preserve the Coordinated Border Infrastructure program, which we believe should be included in any transportation package. CBI dollars drawn down by border state departments of transportation are used to fund infrastructure projects that are critical to trade facilitation.
Last month, more than 110 House Republicans and Democrats signed on to a letter to President Obama urging his support for a transportation bill. With the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee having passed its version of the bill in November, it looks like we're getting closer to getting a deal done.
But as with anything of this scale, there are still significant challenges on the road ahead. Both the Senate and House must come up with significant funding streams (or big cuts) to make their proposals work. The Senate has to find $12 billion to make its two-year plan work, while the House would likely need to find over $70 billion to fund its five-year plan. Considering how tight the federal budget is, those dollars won't be easy to come by.
And the Border Trade Alliance has serious concerns with the way the CBI program is treated under the Senate version of the bill. CBI is preserved, but without the mandates on border state DOTs to spend the dollars in the border region. We're working hard to ensure that CBI dollars stay in the border region.
There are some bright spots, however. Under the Senate version, CBI dollars could be spent on freight rail infrastructure, something that is not possible under the current incarnation of the program.
The BTA joined a coalition of business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that recently wrote to the House and Senate calling for the passage of a transportation bill before the current law expires March 31.
In the letter, we write that "…the economic opportunities that a well-crafted measure could afford and emerging political consensus for advancing such an effort, we believe it is time for all involved parties to come together and craft a final product."
When I speak in Washington D.C. or in communities along our nation's borders, whether it is one-on-one or in a group setting, my message remains the same: There is no greater or faster return on infrastructure investment than that offered by our land ports of entry on both borders.
The horrendous wait times of people waiting to deliver goods and services through commercial lanes or travelers in line for hours waiting to visit our country and spend money must be alleviated one way or another.
Not every issue in Washington has to get bogged down partisan bickering. There's enough goodwill surrounding the need and desire to upgrade the nation's – and the border region's – aging infrastructure to make significant progress. Here's hoping Congress and the White House don't miss this opportunity.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance