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Opinion Pieces by Rob

Wittman says long-term federal highway bill vital for region

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Washington, October 22, 2015 | comments

In August, this newspaper published an editorial that described the challenges that commuters and businesses in our region face because of the debilitating traffic on our roads. As a commuter myself and as a representative of a congressional district that covers much of the Interstate 95 corridor in Northern Virginia, as well as the Northern Neck, the Middle Peninsula and a significant portion of Hampton Roads, I am familiar with both the veins and arteries that make up Virginia’s transportation system and the congestion that plagues those roadways. Each day, as I drive from my home in Westmoreland County to Washington, I see the gridlock that’s preventing the Fredericksburg region from reaching its full potential.

For too long, Congress has been unable to agree about federal transportation funding. Instead, it has resorted to temporary budget measures to keep the Highway Trust Fund operating. The bill Congress passed in August to extend federal funds for highway and transit to states marks the 34th short-term transportation extension since 2009. [It runs out at the end of this month.] I have supported temporary patches because even short-term funding is better than none at all for critical transportation programs and ongoing infrastructure projects. For years, however, I have been demanding a more permanent solution.

When it comes down to it, Washington is as responsible as rubberneckers and rush-hour volume for the seemingly never-ending traffic our communities endure. The consistent reliance on shortsighted decision-making and temporary funding mechanisms has prevented transportation planners from implementing much- needed projects and enacting reforms that are necessary to strengthen our transportation infrastructure—both literally and figuratively.

Without a comprehensive highway bill, congestion will continue to prevent economic growth and success in high-traffic areas like ours. A multi-year transportation reauthorization would enable entities at the federal, state and local levels to more effectively coordinate and more efficiently leverage available resources. No single problem causes all of our traffic problems, and no single solution will solve them. A strategic transportation vision that unfolds over time would facilitate a more comprehensive effort to target the vast array of issues that contribute to congestion.

Unfortunately, the shortsightedness that has characterized Congress’ approach to the transportation problem has led to stagnation in other areas like the budget and appropriations. Uncertainty undermines not just our businesses, but our communities. It’s time for elected leaders to acknowledge the impact that short-term spending decisions—from the highway bill to the broader appropriations process—continue to have at every level of our economy.

I have consistently fought against Congress’ pattern of reactionary politics and governing by crisis. This debate about the highway bill is just a single recurring chapter in that story—a story in which federal funding is pushed to the brink and vital projects are left hanging in the balance, only to be saved at the last moment by a temporary extension of current funding levels. But short-term funding is no way to execute long-term vision.

That chapter is repeating itself again as we approach yet another deadline for the Highway Trust Fund, and I am actively urging my fellow members of Congress to engage in a substantive, purposeful discussion about how to address this challenge in the long term. A number of proposals already exist for shoring up or expanding the Highway Trust Fund. For instance, one approach would be to reform the way overseas corporate profits are taxed, and another would require that Highway Trust Fund balances be placed in interest- bearing accounts that may in turn generate further dollars for highway and infrastructure projects. These ideas—and many others—deserve thoughtful debate and consideration as we work toward a permanent solution. I urge my colleagues to consider these practical alternatives to the inefficient temporary spending measures that have led to the paralysis we’re experiencing on Virginia’s roadways.

Driving on I–95 near Fredericksburg recently, I found myself at a dead standstill, with nothing but brake lights for miles ahead. It was a quintessential traffic jam—the type that is becoming increasingly associated with our region. As I looked around, I saw federal workers, Marines, local commuters and parents driving their children to school. In that moment, I couldn’t help but consider just how far the effects of this congestion extend. On that day, maybe it was the difference between a second-grader getting to school at 8:30 a.m. or 8:45 a.m., or maybe it meant that the local grocer couldn’t get his product on the shelves on time. But on a broader level, this gridlock could cause a growing company to pass Fredericksburg over as it looks for a site to expand its burgeoning business. Stand-still traffic can mean missed opportunity.

Persistent congestion is a collective burden for our citizens and communities. It is a barrier that holds this region back from further growth and opportunity. I will continue to fight in Congress for a long-term transportation and infrastructure bill that enables localities areas like Fredericksburg to break free of the gridlock and move toward an environment of economic growth.

Rob Wittman, a resident of Westmoreland County, represents Virginia’s 1st District in Congress.

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