You’re driving. It’s 5:30 p.m.
Traffic is flowing through West Memphis so smoothly that you wonder if you’re dreaming. And in fact, you are, because as everyone and their brother knows, West Memphis has been choked by construction since the dawn of time.
You can’t blame all construction woes and transportation headaches on inconsistent funding and outdated legislation, either in West Memphis or in other parts of Arkansas. However, a modern, long-term federal highway bill does allow cities and states to begin needed projects and complete them much faster.
In 2005, Congress passed the $286.4 billion “S.A.F.E.T.E.A-L.U.” act (the “LU” part of the title, officially an acronym for “a Legacy for Users,” was actually made in homage to Lu Young, the wife of the then-Transportation Committee Chairman, Rep. Don Young). But SAFETEA-LU expired in 2009, and since that time Congress has passed 36 “patches” that continued to fund transportation programs but did not completely update policy to reflect modern needs.
MAP-21, the most substantive highway patch, passed in 2012 and was the first foray into the type of modern policy our infrastructure needed. After MAP-21, from concept to completion a highway project might take 10 years instead of 15, for example. However, MAP-21 was still relatively short-term: Funding lasted only 18 months.
All of us on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee knew that, to truly address our nation’s outdated infrastructure, we needed some serious policy updates. In order to give assurances to our general contractors and their employees, suppliers, and the jobs directly and indirectly supported by these projects, we also knew that the highway bill needed to be long term, preferably authorized for six years.
On November 5, the House passed its version of the highway bill, the STRR Act. On December 3, the House passed by a vote of 359–65 the FAST Act, the reconciled version of the STRR Act and the Senate bill.
As a member of the conference committee, I worked with 64 other conferees to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. And then, on December 4, the president signed the FAST Act into law.
At this point, you should be asking yourself, how could Congress create and pass a five-year, fully funded highway bill (the sort of which we haven’t produced since 2005) in a single month? These conferencing processes to resolve differences usually take months.
A few factors made quick passage possible.
Number one: During the creation of the House bill, the House Transportation Committee essentially, and thankfully, forced members to garner bipartisan support for any of their priorities.
For example, during the markup of the House bill, the committee did not seriously consider any amendments unless there were at least one Republican and one Democrat as cosponsors. If the amendment was partisan and offered during the markup, the chairman (Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania) and ranking member (Rep. Peter Defazio, D-Oregon) opposed it. Ensuring bipartisan support on the front end enabled quick passage during the conferencing process.
In addition, approximately two-thirds of the highway bill was already agreed to before the conferencing process with the Senate began. And for that, we must thank the staff of both Senate and House committees and the staff of individual members for their near round-the-clock work.
By the time the conferencing process started, we were already working with a bipartisan bill text, two-thirds of which had already been agreed to.
Certain personalities were also more willing to compromise and lent decades of experience to the process. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, for instance, the Democratic ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is retiring at the end of her term and was more willing to work with the Republican majority to get another highway bill under her belt. Senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, also an old hand and well versed in this process, used his expertise to guide the process.
All of these factors taken together created the unique situation where Congress was able to act with lighting speed (relatively speaking, of course) to create a landmark bill that will provide for the large majority of our nation’s infrastructure needs until 2020. But the FAST Act’s passage does not signal the end of our committee’s work. For the next several months and even years, our committee will track the progress and implementation of the FAST act, and before we know it, it will once again be time to pass another highway bill.