By Senator James M. Inhofe, Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Together in a strong bipartisan, collaborative process, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee crafted a six-year transportation bill last year that would create jobs, promote economic growth, and address the nation’s surface transportation needs. The bill successfully passed in the Senate by a vote of 76-21, but despite the best efforts of many, we fell just short of reaching an agreement in last year’s Conference Committee. We now are facing the deadline of the extension we passed last year and must rekindle the hard work and bipartisanship that moved us so close to success in the last Congress.

I am very pleased to see the dramatic increase in the President’s budget number for transportation. Some may seek to increase that number on the Senate floor but I believe all can agree we are in a much better position this year to begin the debate. This is critically important legislation, not only because our nation’s transportation infrastructure is in dire need of improvement but because it will create millions of job opportunities, fight traffic congestion, and improve the safety of our nation’s roads and bridges.

The needs are real. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), time spent in congestion increased from 31.7% in 1992 to 33.1 percent in 2000. Based on this rate of growth, a typical “Rush Hour” in an urbanized area is approximately 5.3 hours per day. Furthermore, congestion is not just an urban problem. Again, according to the DOT cities with a population less than 500,000 have experienced the greatest growth in travel delays. Without question congestion is a nationwide problem.

Over the past six years, we have made great progress in preserving and improving the overall physical condition of our transportation system. However, more needs to be done. This is not just a transportation issue, but is also an economic development issue for our neighborhoods, communities and the nation. A safe, effective transportation system is the foundation of a growing economy. According to DOT estimates, every $1 billion of federal funds invested in highway improvements creates 47,000 jobs. The same $1 billion investment yields $500 million in new orders for the manufacturing sector and $500 million spread throughout other sectors of the economy. Unfortunately, there are serious consequences if we further dely this process.

State contract awards for the 2005 spring and summer construction season are going out to bid. If we fail to pass a bill soon, states will not know what to expect in federal funding and the uncertainty will potentially force states to delay putting these projects out to bid. According to a study done by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, an estimated 90,000 jobs are at stake nationwide. This problem is even more serious for northern-tier states that have shorter construction seasons. In many states, transportation departments have advanced state dollars to construct projects eligible for federal-funding in anticipation of action by Congress to increase those funding levels. Without a new bill, states are holding the bag until we act.

In moving forward we must also consider the discrepancies between donor states (those who contribute more to the highway trust fund than they receive in return) and donee states (those who receive more from the fund than they contribute). One of my top priorities as Chairman of the EPW Committee is to increase the rate of return for donor states such as Oklahoma.

The bill passed in the Senate in the 108th Congress guaranteed all donor states a rate of return of at least 95 percent (currently the guaranteed rate of return is 90.5%). It is my intention to continue to push for a rate of return for donor states as close to that percentage as possible, while at the same time treating donee states equitably.

True conservatives like myself have always been willing to spend scarce tax dollars on two very important national priorities - the defense of our country and the maintenance and improvement of our national infrastructure. That is what we are sent here for. Coming from a state that ranks dead last in the maintenance of our bridges, I am highly aware of the critical importance of this legislation.