The Best Jobs Bill is Stuck in Congress

Expansion of the Portland Streetcar system is in the proposed new jobs bill.A bill that would create more than a million jobs through infrastructure investment is stuck in Congress and will likely be delayed until at least 2011. The bill would jumpstart investment in the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure, relieve congestion, and provide the backbone for the nation’s global competition in the 21st Century.

In Oregon and Washington, it could provide up to $400 million for the new Columbia River Crossing project and millions for Portland’s streetcar project and crumbling Sellwood Bridge. As the nation’s unemployment rate continues to hover around 9.5 percent, investment in infrastructure seems to be the best way to create jobs. There is only one problem – nobody wants to pay for it.

The stalled bill, known as the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, could provide $500 billion during the next six years for transportation infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure is a proven job creator – for every $1 billion spent, approximately 34,700 jobs are created.

While the bill has the political upside of creating jobs, raising the revenues during an economic downturn remains elusive. To pay for a $500 billion transportation bill, the gas tax would have to be raised, which hasn’t happened since 1993. The gas tax – at 18.4 cents per gallon – hasn’t been adjusted for inflation, and has experienced a cumulative 33 percent loss in purchasing power. The increase would allow the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund, which is supported by gas taxes, to recover from a decade of neglect. However, the quandary of raising taxes to create jobs is making everyone in Washington uneasy.

Many transportation advocates are also touting the global economic benefits of investing in infrastructure. Currently, China is investing 9 percent of its GDP on transportation and India spends 3.5 percent. The U.S. spends less than 1%. Without changes to current policy, all levels of government for capital investment will total roughly one-third of the nearly $200 billion needed annually to maintain and improve the nation’s highway and transit systems. 

The implementation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s had many positive economic impacts on the U.S. Today, the interstate system, which accounts for only 1 percent of the nation’s road mileage, carries over 24 percent of the nation’s traffic, and it has a profound impact on the economy, national defense and lifestyle of Americans. Although the interstate system was met with much opposition and conflict in its conception, the System was enacted with the common vision of making the U.S. the economic and military powerhouse of the world.

The implementation of the current bill has the potential to build on this legacy, and help the U.S. solidify its competitiveness in the global economy. So with all the talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, it seems the best jobs bill continues to gather dust on the legislative shelf.