SUSAN COLLINS

Susan Collins: How the US missed a chance to invest in roads, bridges, housing

President Barack Obama is greeted by Senators Susan Collins, R-Maine, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, as he arrives at the U.S. Capitol to meet with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in this March 2013 file photo.
Drew Angerer | MCT
President Barack Obama is greeted by Senators Susan Collins, R-Maine, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, as he arrives at the U.S. Capitol to meet with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in this March 2013 file photo.
Posted Aug. 05, 2013, at 1:39 p.m.

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently issued a report card giving Maine’s transportation infrastructure a grade of C-minus. The poor condition of our state’s roads and bridges ends up costing Maine drivers, on average, an extra $299 a year in car repairs. As this report card concluded, “the health, safety and welfare of our citizens are directly tied to the quality of our infrastructure.”

There are more than 2,400 bridges in our state, and 356 of them were classified as deficient last year, according to the Maine Department of Transportation. That’s nearly 15 percent of the bridges in Maine and above the national average of 11 percent.

The department estimates its annual required investment to maintain good repair for our highways and bridges would cost $355 million, which is an estimated $110 million above the amount the state is able to spend.

Being classified as “deficient” doesn’t mean a bridge is going to fall down anytime soon. But it does signify that the bridge needs serious rehabilitation. The terrifying bridge collapse that occurred earlier this year in Washington state and the deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 magnify the importance of properly funding the maintenance of our nation’s highway and bridge infrastructure — much of which is now well past its useful life and cannot accommodate today’s traffic volumes.

That is why I am so disappointed that, last week, the Senate failed to pass a bill that would fund not only the U.S. Department of Transportation next year, but also the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides housing assistance for low-income seniors and homeless veterans, and for community development projects.

As the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that sets the budgets for these departments, I drafted this bipartisan bill with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Our bill passed the Senate appropriations committee with strong bipartisan support, including six Republicans. Seventy-three senators, including 19 Republicans, voted to proceed to the bill when it was first brought up on the Senate floor, despite the strong opposition of the Senate Republican leader.

We spent nearly two weeks debating the bill and working through approximately 85 amendments in an open process. We were making excellent progress. More important, the Senate had returned to considering individual funding bills with full opportunity for debate and amendments, rather than waiting until the 11th hour to combine the appropriations bills into legislation totaling thousands of pages with limited transparency and debate and often few, if any, amendments. Many of us, Republicans in particular, have called for what is referred to as “regular order.”

Our bill was not perfect, and undoubtedly its funding would have ultimately been reduced in negotiations with the House. While some of my colleagues advocated for the lower funding level in the House version of the bill, not one senator offered an amendment cutting specific programs to reach the overall funding level of the House.

Indeed, the House bill was pulled from consideration because many members thought the bill didn’t include enough funding and would further hurt our homeless veterans and delay repair of our deteriorating infrastructure. The fact is the Federal Highway Administration estimates that we must invest more than $101 billion at all levels of government each year just to maintain our highways and bridges over the next 20 years.

Additionally, transportation is one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, representing nearly 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, and it’s one of the largest generators of well-paying jobs.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that $50 billion in highway and transit spending from the Highway Trust Fund that our bill provided would support 1.7 million jobs next year. Improving the efficiency and reliability of the nation’s transportation system is vital to the movement of freight and people and is critical to a better economic future.

By filibustering this vital bill, the Senate failed to do its job. We missed an opportunity to demonstrate to the American people that we can work together, in good faith, and strike the right balance between fiscal responsibility and our nation’s housing and infrastructure needs.

Susan Collins, a Republican, represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.

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