by Nelson Balido
If it seems like Congress is even more profoundly gridlocked than ever, you’re right. We’re in an election year, which makes getting things done especially tough amidst partisan sniping. So perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked that hundreds of thousands of defense sector jobs are hanging in the balance because of looming automatic government spending cuts, that taxpayers are crying out for some clarity over the nearing expiration of the Bush era tax cuts and that businesses are wondering what will happen with a payroll tax holiday.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. After nine previous extensions, earlier this month Congress did pass and the president signed into law a new transportation bill, MAP-21, the acronym for Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).
The bill is a $105 billion package to fund transportation for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.
In terms of facilitating north-south trade, there was good news to be had with the federal designation of Interstate 11, which will connect Las Vegas, Nevada with Phoenix, the country’s two largest metropolitan areas not connected by an interstate.
The I-11 designation is a giant leap in helping to realize the vision of the Canamex Corridor: an all-interstate trade route stretching from the Montana-Alberta border to the Arizona-Sonora border.
Talk about setting partisanship aside. Senate Democratic Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, hardly shrinking violets when it comes to representing their parties, were both vocal champions of the I-11 designation. Gov. Brewer rightly called the move by Congress a “significant step in continuing to foster economic development and tourism, build stronger transportation infrastructure for the Intermountain West and support national and international trade.”
And there was good news for Texas, too, as some highways in the state received designation as Interstate 69, making up key parts of what has been dubbed the NAFTA Superhighway, facilitating trade from the Rio Grande Valley to Canada.
As Cameron County administrator and Border Trade Alliance board member Pete Sepulveda told The Brownsville Herald, the lack of access to an interstate is “a major turn-off for companies that require good access to deliver their products. It’s huge. Having an interstate that goes directly into our international bridges will be a major accomplishment. It’s a priority for us and we’re going to try to have all the improvements funded and completed within the next three to five years.”
While these federal designations don’t mean road builders will be turning dirt right away, it does mean that the projects are now eligible for federal funding in the future.
On the downside of the bill, the two-year length of the funding stream doesn’t allow for much long-term planning for border state departments of transportation. But if we’re looking at this from a glass half-full perspective, it does mean that we’ve got a chance sooner rather than later to go back to Congress and shape a long-term bill that solidifies our country’s transportation needs and makes trade facilitation a priority.
A top priority in the next bill will be to ensure that the Coordinated Border Infrastructure program, a program that allows state DOTs to access federal funds for the development of trade-related infrastructure in the border region, is maintained.
Key to the next iteration of CBI will be to ensure that states spend the dollars in the border region.
As the Border Trade Alliance’s vice-chairman, Jesse Hereford, testified before the Texas House Committee on Border & Intergovernmental Affairs in June, we’d usually side with state lawmakers in not wanting federal funds to come with strings attached when those dollars are drawn down by the states.
But as Mr. Hereford said, “In this instance, without a commitment from TXDOT (and other state departments of transportation) that these dollars will find their way to the border, I am concerned that the border will be left behind in the chase for transportation funds. Border residents send their gas tax dollars to Washington, D.C. just like everyone else; CBI was one way of ensuring that those dollars came back to the communities where they originated.”
These next two years will go by fast. It’s worth reminding Congress that good policy makes good politics. If our representatives and senators are looking for kudos from their constituents in the next election cycle, then they can get to work straight away with border region stakeholders in drawing up a long-term transportation plan.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance