The Road To Jobs

Volnovich Op-ed on Highway Bill from August 5, 2010 Politico —

Congress narrowly approved yet another unemployment insurance extension, but my colleagues on the other side of the aisle continue to miss the forest for the trees.

Instilling certainty into the economy by providing relief to the unemployed is important. But creating sustainable jobs is where this debate should be focused.

Over the past two years, our nation borrowed $123 billion to pay for unemployment insurance extensions, our national debt increased by almost $4 trillion, and Democrats passed a $2 trillion health care bill and a stimulus bill now estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $860 billion. In spite of all this spending, people are asking, “Where are the jobs?”

Most Americans would rather have a job than collect unemployment insurance. Let’s stop kicking the can down the road and work together on creating jobs — particularly since the answer actually lies on that road — by passing a robust surface transportation reauthorization bill.

A multiyear transportation bill that is paid for would be a real economic stimulus and create immediate jobs. The Transportation Department estimates that for every $1 billion the federal government invests in highways and bridges, 34,800 jobs are created or maintained. Highway projects worth more than $47 billion are ready to go, according to state departments of transportation.

But President Barack Obama is doing nothing to get these projects off the ground. This year, 21 states have indicated that they are likely to be forced to reduce transportation investments because of Washington’s inaction.

The transportation construction industry supports more than 3 million jobs. Just think about the massive impact this industry has on employment in the U.S. It provides more domestic jobs than both U.S. motor vehicle and parts manufacturers and petroleum and coal products manufacturers. The infrastructure built, maintained and managed by this industry is the backbone of our economy.

Unfortunately, this sector is in its worst condition since World War II. The unemployment rate in construction is a staggering 20 percent — higher than for any other industry and two times the national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent.

Recently, Tom Foss, representing the Associated General Contractors of America, got at the root of the problem. Our “failure to pass a multiyear transportation bill creates significant market uncertainty,” Foss said, in testifying before the Senate. “The uncertainty makes it difficult to hold onto valued employees. It makes it hard to convince subcontractors to work for us. And it makes it hard to convince lenders to invest in us.”

A robust new highway bill is a three-fer. It is good for jobs and for an industry that is struggling, good for our competitive position in the global marketplace and good for our environment — traffic congestion, for example, contributes almost 30 percent to our greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, construction is an economic stimulus we can afford at a time when we are borrowing more than 41 cents of every dollar we spend.

We do not need to borrow money for the transportation bill. We can pay for it by increasing the gas tax, which has not risen since 1993. The gas tax is a user fee, and just a few cents could help create jobs, improve our infrastructure and better the climate.

As President Ronald Reagan said in 1982, when the nation was facing record unemployment above 10 percent, “Good tax policy decrees that, wherever possible, a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service.”

Reagan knew America was in dire straits and fought hard for a gas tax increase once he realized the effect it would have on the economy. It was a tough pill for his conservative colleagues to swallow. But, in the end, Congress passed the much-needed Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which provided a 5-cent gas tax increase and created hundreds of thousands of jobs. History speaks for itself.

Today, groups that don’t traditionally back tax increases — among them, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Trucking Association — have come out in support of a gas tax increase because of this reauthorization bill’s ability to put Americans back to work.

But we are still waiting to hear from the most important player: Obama. He is on the stump talking about creating jobs, but he’s in a bunker when it comes to a reauthorization of the surface transportation bill. We are working full-bore to get a bipartisan bill done this year. The House has been working on reauthorization for 2½ years.

I cannot understand how the president can ignore this issue at a time when unemployment continues to grow and we have a proven job creator at our fingertips.

Show me another bill that has bipartisan support from labor, manufacturing, business, the trucking industry and state and local groups. Show me another bill that will create real jobs for Americans, will be paid for and will bring certainty to a major part of the economy without adding to an already staggering deficit.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) is ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee and serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

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