The ribbon cutting at the Hwy. 35/ Radio Road interchange in River Falls Monday morning was the type of celebration that should happen more often, said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind during an interview later.
“We need to be doing these projects all over the state,” said Kind, D-La Crosse, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee.
Earlier this month, he called on Congress to cancel the annual August recess and instead work on a long-term plan to finance the Highway Trust Fund.
“The economic benefit is tremendous,” said Kind. “We’ve got to rebuild, and we need jobs so let’s get this going.”
The House of Representatives passed an inadequate fix last week that would keep the fund afloat for 10 months, but what is needed is consensus on a sustainable six-year funding plan, said Kind.
He said a comprehensive transportation plan is a jobs bill too because state and local governments, contractors and construction workers want predictability.
The short-term bill, adopted by the House but not yet by the Senate, pulls together $10.8 billion by using pension tax changes, customs fees and money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks.
“Building a stronger infrastructure and creating good jobs requires a long-term plan,” said Kind.
He said the country has a workforce ready to do the job and bolster local economies. The economic benefit would be tremendous, said Kind.
“It’s another kick the can down the road,” he said of national lawmakers’ failure to work out a long-term plan.
Kind pointed out that the River Falls Radio Road project cost roughly $12 million with the city paying $4.5 million and state and federal sources splitting the remaining $8 million.
The Trust Fund depends on a federal gas tax system adopted in 1993. But in this age of fuel-efficient vehicles and hybrids, the tax isn’t generating enough money, and the transportation system across the country is crumbling, said Kind.
“I think the American people see it’s time for us to do a better job of repairing the infrastructure,” he said, adding, “America’s infrastructure is starting to look like that of a Third World country… and that might be an insult to Third World nations.”
Wisconsin relies heavily on the Federal Trust Fund, said Kind, adding that the state has a $1 trillion backlog in transportation projects.
He urged action, “so we can get going and rebuild Wisconsin the way it’s meant to be.”
Kind referred to a report released by the American Society of Civil Engineers last year, indicating that 71% of Wisconsin’s roads are in “poor or mediocre” condition, and 1,157 of the state’s bridges are “structurally deficient.” The nation’s infrastructure as a whole was given a D grade.
Airports and ports are also suffering, said Kind, complaining that the nation’s busiest airport, New York City’s LaGuardia, “looks like a Third World airport.”
Kind said he spoke to Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials during the River Falls ribbon cutting: “They said it’s killing them because of the short-term extensions.”
Those extensions, he said, don’t allow departments to begin planning for future projects to get them done.
Kind said he also talked to the contractors, H. James and Sons of Fennimore, who said they’ve had to postpone major equipment purchases because they don’t know how much work to count on.
It will do no good to simply fall back on just increasing the federal gas tax because as cars become more fuel efficient and more hybrids come into use, the tax money drops, said Kind.
Cars that don’t use gas are using the nation’s highway free, and that shifts more of the burden on low-income people who can’t afford hybrids or newer, fuel-efficient vehicles, he said.
A possibility, being explored in some states, is a vehicle miles-traveled tax. While there is reluctance to empower the federal government to collect that information, it’s an option that could be explored along with others, said Kind.
He suggested hearings to lay out variety of options and perhaps supporting the Highway Trust Fund through a combination of different sources.
According to an intelligence briefs last week, it seems clear that Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine were responsible for shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, said Kind.
But, he said, it is apparent Russia supplied the training for the Ukrainian rebels who attacked the plane. While there’s uncertainty about how directly involved the Russians were, there is a lot of coordination between the two them and the separatists, said Kind.
President Barack Obama is not contemplating any direct U.S. military involvement in the area but rather economic and diplomatic pressure, said Kind. He said he also would not support U.S. military involvement because the situation poses no immediate security to risk to America.
Kind said Obama is “ramping up the pressure on Putin” to disavow the actions of the separatists and pull Russian troops back. American began imposing more sanctions on Russia over the weekend and needs to keep the pressure on, said Kind.
“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin is doing his best to further isolate Russia in the (world) economy,” said Kind, a tactic “which will hurt Russia in the future.”
Obama did announce more aid to the Ukraine, and if Putin can be persuaded to pull back, Ukraine can secure its border, said Kind.
“I don’t remember a period when we had so many fires going at the same time,” added Kind, referring to ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza and China.