By John Schneidawind, vice president of public affairs, ARTBA

House legislation approved late May 15 is the first meaningful step to help cash-strapped state transportation departments, but the final package should not force a “false choice” between paying for existing operations or funding road and bridge construction, ARTBA President Dave Bauer told more than 200 association members attending a virtual forum earlier in the day.

The $3 trillion Health & Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act would provide $15 billion to state DOTS facing steep revenue declines caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and give governors the ability to use separately provided state aid for the same purpose. The package would make the $15 billion and unused core federal highway funds eligible for captial and operational purposes.

Simultaneously, Bauer reminded listeners, the FAST Act surface transportation reauthorization expires Sept. 30, which means there is a dual legislative track on Capitol Hill. While aid to the states and other COVID-19 relief spending has traction in the House, the chamber hasn’t released a reauthorization bill. In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee last summer passed the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA), which includes a 27 percent increase in highway investment. But the upper chamber has not indicated plans for further pandemic relief spending.

ARTBA’s latest Grassroots Action Center message, unveiled Friday, emphasizes both points under the theme: “The Road to Economic Recovery Begins with Strategic Transportation Investments. “The House and Senate can achieve this goal by: providing the $50 billion infusion of federal funding state DOTs need to ensure infrastructure improvements move forward; and completing action on robustly-funded multi-year highway and transit reauthorization bill before the FAST Act expires Sept. 30,” says the message, which can be quickly sent to members of Congress via email and social media platforms.

Through late afternoon Friday, 394 advocates sent 1,167 emails to Capitol Hill and 57 tweets.

During the virtual forum, ARTBA Chief Economist Alison Black noted the value of highway and bridge construction work increased in March 2020 compared to March 2019 and contractors added 26,100 jobs over the same time period.  While this is welcome news, there is growing concern over reported declines in state and local transportation revenues.  Ten states have canceled or delayed $4 billion in projects, according to ARTBA’s research. 

“The next phase will determine how the market evolves over the next five years.” Black said.  “Backfilling state transportation revenues provides necessary relief, but not recovery.”

She noted that it took eight years for state and local highway and bridge spending to reach pre-recession levels after the federal stimulus in 2009.  This is in contrast to real market growth after a sustained increase in federal surface transportaiton investment.

White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland gave members an off the record briefing during the forum, which was hosted by 2020 ARTBA Chairman Steve McGough.