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Counties Outline Priorities While Awaiting Infrastructure Bill

October 27, 2020 by Kate Michael
The Outerbridge Crossing, a cantilever bridge spanning the Arthur Kill between Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Staten Island, New York. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Americans rely on public infrastructure like buildings, roads, bridges, and power supply lines every day. Some of the groundworks needed to operate society are handled by the federal government, some maintained by states, and a large portion owned and operated by the nation’s 3,141 individual counties.

Counties play a critical role in mass transit systems and airports; they run most of the nation’s local jails and courthouses, operate more than 900 public hospitals, and build and maintain more than 40% of the nation’s roads and bridges. County transportation is vital for moving food efficiently and for ensuring a strong national defense. 

According to Liz Hausman, commissioner from Fulton County, Ga., speaking at the National Association of Counties’ Virtual Federal Policy Summit, counties invest $134 billion annually on infrastructure and public works operations. And while transportation projects, which she claims are “among the most fundamental and important of duties,” are a focus, “there is more to infrastructure than just road projects.” 

“As the boots on the ground, county officials know the importance of keeping infrastructure in good repair,” she said, and much of America’s aging infrastructure needs to be upgraded or replaced.

Hausman was joined by a panel of trade associations and businesses that discussed plans with county administrators for the future of transportation and infrastructure, especially with respect to declining budgets and the continuing impact of COVID-19. 

“Counties lost over $1 billion in transportation revenue in April and May 2020 alone,” said Hausman, who believes infrastructure projects will be key to American economic recovery from COVID-19, spurring economic development throughout regions.

Ed Mortimer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is optimistic the U.S. will be able to “modernize infrastructure into the 21st Century” once a broad systemic federal infrastructure bill is passed.  

“We’ve gone from brick-and-mortar economy to e-commerce; Modes of transportation are very different than in the 50s and 60s… We believe now is the time to have a 21st Century view of infrastructure, and having a federal vision is important,” Mortimer said.

Based on both presidential candidates’ campaign priorities and advance administration budget projections, Mortimer anticipates legislation — a critical source of funding — to come as soon as early next year. The Chamber was pleased that, absent reauthorization, the government offered stopgap appropriations in the form of a one-year extension of the FAST Act, which ensures temporary funding for highway and transit programs. This extension offers a window of opportunity to consider and produce a significant new highway policy bill. 

Mortimer hopes any long-term highway policy bill will include a new toolkit of funding and financing options, pilot programs to consider a transition to vehicle-miles-traveled in lieu of the Highway Trust Fund, or any other long-term sustainable funding source to replace the fuel tax, which was set and has been steady since 1993.

Also, happy to have secured a one-year extension of Highway Bill, but now calling for a long-term bill that “bolsters businesses and keeps Americans at work,” Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, agreed that the Highway Trust Fund needs more from the federal gas tax. On behalf of ACG, he’s looking for an infrastructure bill that modernizes the transit system to meet today’s needs, which includes improving the environmental review and permitting process, bolstering innovation and use of new technology, allowing states the flexibility to avoid one-size-fits-all policies, and ensuring the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund to enable counties to plan future building projects with confidence. 

“The surface transportation system requires significant investment from all levels of government,” said Sandherr. 

Joung Lee, director of policy and government relations for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials echoed those calling for a robust and sustainable infrastructure bill with increased flexibility for states, increasing formula-based funding to states, and which supports state plans to harness technology.

“No more short-term programming extensions,” Lee said. 

So far in 2020, the House of Representatives passed a substantial $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, which was sent over to the Senate. Due to COVID priorities, this legislation has stalled, though analysts predicted that it had little chance of being signed into law as written. There is a bipartisan expectation that it will be revisited after the election. 

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