Issue demonstrations in the Nation’s Capital come in all sizes, from the Million Man March to the solitary sentinel with a handmade sign trying to draw attention to the most obscure of causes.
So while the 200-300 participants in the March 20 Rally for Roads on the National Mall may have been outnumbered by some of the tour groups in town to take in the famed cherry blossoms, there was no doubting their enthusiasm for urging Congress to act on a long-term surface transportation measure.
The one-day event debuted last year to heighten awareness about the importance of transportation funding to the nation’s economy. A galaxy of industry groups backed the Rally including the American Concrete Pavement Association, Associated Equipment Distributors, Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Associated General Contractors of America, American Highway Users Alliance, American Road and Transportation Builders Association, American Society of Civil Engineers, American Traffic Safety Services Association, Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute, National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, Portland Cement Association, International Safety Equipment Association, and the US Chamber of Commerce.
With the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop and an audience dotted with signs, safety vests, and hardhats, a bipartisan parade of speakers bookended by Senate Environment and Public Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fl.) stepped forward over the course of an hour to voice their disappointment at the conflicts that have stranded a successor to SAFETEA-LU for too long, and vowed their continued commitment to get something done in order to create jobs, enhance safety, and strengthen the nation’s competitiveness.
Representatives from sectors as diverse as corn growers and retailing were also on hand to remind listeners of infrastructure’s value to their industries, and reminding them that multi-modal rail connections should be included with roads and bridges as pressing transportation needs.
Each speaker had no problem eliciting cheers and applause because after all, they said what the audience wanted to hear: “Road and bridges are important. Road and bridge projects create jobs for you and other Americans. We want federal funding for them, and we want it now.”
Left unspoken and perhaps unnoticed, however, were some of the inconvenient details that have contributed the transportation funding impasse.
While several speakers echoed Sen. Boxer’s plea for House Speaker John Boehner to endorse the Senate’s recently passed two-year $109 billion bill, mention of a specific measure gradually disappeared by time Rep. Mica took the mic and asked the Rally for Roads crowd for help in getting “this legislation” passed, presumably meaning a variation of the five-year, $260 billion proposal that has not fared well in House committees. (Two other Rally speakers also criticized the House bill as “a step backward.”)
Mica apparently wasn’t around to hear the boos that greeted other speakers’ references to repeated short-term extensions of SAFETEA-LU’s funding provision. Facing a March 31 deadline for some kind of reauthorization, Mica put the wheels in motion on—what else—a three-month extension.
Also, references to the compromise that Boxer claimed had made it possible to find common ground with Sen. James Imhofe (R-Okla.)—“We come from different political parties…we come from different planets!”—were uttered less frequently as the Rally went on. The problem wasn’t reluctance to act, according to later speakers, but excessive regulation.
And while nearly every speaker questioned the long-term viability of aging roads and bridges was continually nobody went near the question of whether the current gas tax is the best revenue-generating mechanism for the future, or if transit should continue to get a piece of the action.
None of that mattered to the Rally for Roads audience. They were there to press for results. And they had every right to expect them. Former Texas representative and Rally emcee Max Sandlin (D) hailed the slate of speakers as “champions of transportation,” people who, by virtue of their longstanding service in Congress, “know how to get things done.”
Perhaps instead of cheering, the crowd should have asked, “Well….why don’t you?”