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Highway bill highlighted in House, Senate, twitterverse; transport shortcomings 'almost criminal'

No one can accuse the new Congress of not paying attention to the transportation system, as the importance of federal investment in the nation’s infrastructure is the subject of hearings on both sides of the Capitol again this week – with the debate even spreading to Twitter. But will this growing sense of urgency lead to action, or just to frustration and yet another series of short-term extensions?

Kicking off the week on Capitol Hill, Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Reid Ribble (R-WI), along with another 300 or so members of Congress, wrote to the House leadership and called for a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill in the coming months.

“Very simply, we support transportation and infrastructure investment because our economy needs a national system to safely move people and deliver goods from place to place,” said the letter to Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.  “The current extension of the Highway Trust Fund is slated to expire on May 31st of this year.  This is not a long way off.  We are united in our conviction that now is the time to end the cycle of short-term extensions that kick the can down the road by doing the work needed to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill.”

Also in the House, Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx on Wednesday will testify on behalf of the administration’s Grow America Act, introduced by President Obama last year and fleshed out to six years and a half-trillion dollars in the recent White House budget proposal.

Foxx will then join House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster will jointly host a “Twitter town hall” on the matter.

The session takes place at approximately noon (EST), with Foxx and Chairman Shuster answering as many questions as possible together. Their responses will go out on both @SecretaryFoxx and @Transport (the committee's Twitter handle.)

All this comes on the heels of a hearing Tuesday by the transportation subcommittee of Senate Commerce. In that discussion, a representative of agri-conglomerate Cargill detailed the millions and millions of dollars in meat exports that are being lost because of port congestion on the West Coast. (Asian grocers, it seems, would prefer that fresh U.S. beef and pork products spend shelf-life in their stores rather than in containers on American docks.)

A spokesman for BNSF railroad then explained how an 11-day port shutdown in 2002 cost the U.S. supply chain $15.6 billion, and some shippers permanently moved their freight elsewhere. Additionally, the current slowdown means that rail equipment that is idled because of the labor dispute must be parked somewhere on the system, leading to additional congestion throughout the country.

In response, John Greuling of the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors, called for the establishment of a DOT agency dedicated solely to managing freight issues, along with at least $2 billion in competitive annual funding for freight projects of national importance.

“America has a distinct and very unique advantage in this global marketplace,” Greuling said. “And to think that our transportation system is one of the primary reasons that we’re being held back, it’s almost criminal – it’s a shame.  There’s a lot we can do better.”

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the Commerce chairman, agreed, and emphasized the importance of a reliable and efficient supply chain to global economic competitiveness  – and to American jobs.

“Sometimes there are things that you can’t control, but what’s frustrating is that these problems are self-imposed. They’re really kind of unforced errors,” Thune said. 

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