As owner of a concrete company, James Russ would get frustrated when his trucks sat stuck on the Capital Beltway in Maryland.
As president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, Russ spent considerable time lobbying to get Congress to pass a federal transportation bill, the first since 2005.
“We spent a fair amount of time on Capitol Hill for it,” said Russ, who now is retired from his business but continues to serve the trade association that represents traffic construction companies, concrete manufacturers, civil engineers and others.
“If you turn your back on the political world you get bulldozed,” Russ said.
After a series of annual authorizations, the federal transportation bill, titled the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century bill, was approved recently, giving longer-term assurance of federal funding, he said.
“Was it everything we’d like to see? No. But it was better than what we had,” Russ said.
Unlike past transportation bills, the current one offers two years of authorized funding, rather than money for six years.
For Maryland, the federal funding remains at last year’s level — $580.5 million for highway projects and $170 million for transit, said Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan.
Congress had issued nine extensions to the last authorization bill, which created uncertainty for states, Cahalan said.
The extensions made it difficult for state highway officials to do long-range planning for fear that funds would dry up in the middle of projects, Russ said.
“While the duration of this legislation is shorter than we would have liked, the commitment of federal dollars provides us with a critical path forward,” Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said in an emailed statement.
“Funding levels under MAP-21 [legislation] remain roughly the same as they have been in recent years, allowing us to continue projects already under way, consider some modest project additions later this year and protect nearly 10,000 transportation jobs.”
Republicans had dropped attempts to link unrelated issues to the bill, such as the controversial Keystone oil pipeline and regulation of coal ash produced by coal-burning power plants, while Democrats gave states more leeway on how money could be used.
Russ said the bill comes up short on funding new transportation projects. That’s one reason why he would like to see both federal and state officials consider raising the gas tax. The recent decline in gas prices made this an opportune time, he added.
The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1993, Russ said.
“We recognize transit is important, but we’ve got to recognize how it is paid for and that’s at the pump,” he said.
The United States is “way behind” a number of nations on what it spends on infrastructure,” Russ said.
“We’ve lost sight of how we’ve got to where we are today,” he said. “We’re not forward thinking right now.”