By John DiSatso
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and the president of one of the state's largest paving companies on Tuesday urged the U.S. House to act quickly on a long-term extension of the federal transportation authorization bill, warning that continued gridlock will cost New Hampshire jobs and stall the Interstate 93 widening project.
Shaheen, D-N.H., said a Senate-passed bill contains $170 million a year for New Hampshire as well as a provision allowing the state to borrow $115 million, based on anticipated future federal funds.
Mark Charbonneau, president of Londonderry-based Continental Paving, joined Shaheen on a conference call to warn that if Congress fails to act by the end of Saturday, March 31, he will be forced to lay off employees. He could not say how many would be let go, or how soon, but said, "I'd say it would happen within 15 to 30 days, maximum.
"If the states don't get the funding, they shut the jobs down," Charbonneau said.
Shaheen said that on Monday night, the House failed to act on either the Senate version of the bill, which calls for a two-year extension, or a House leadership plan calling for a 90-day extension. There was also no House action on a bill on Tuesday.
"Without action by Congress, our authority to spend money on transportation programs and to collect the gas and diesel taxes will end on March 31," Shaheen said.
She said the result would be the loss of $110 million a day in revenue nationally, and "it puts at risk so many of the federal projects that states are working on."
Shaheen said the Senate earlier this month passed a bill on a bipartisan vote of 74-22. Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte opposed it.
The Senate-passed two-year extension would support nearly 2 million Americans jobs including about 6,000 in New Hampshire, Shaheen said.
She said the state would get $170 million a year, which would be "very important in what we need to do to finish the Interstate 93 project."
On the Senate floor later, Shaheen said cutting funding for transporation would be "dangerous."
She said the bill "is fully paid for and doesn't increase the deficit."
"We need to make a payroll every week and we can't do that in two-month increments," said Charbonneau, calling for passage of the Senate plan. "We need to look at efficiencies and without any proper planning it puts a big wrinkle in that process."
He also said that with rising petroleum prices, the longer jobs are put off, the more it will cost.
Although Congress is known for waiting until the last minute and then finding solutions, Shaheen said that's not always the case and there is a real possibility that the current authorization will expire.
"When we tried last year to reauthorize the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), after 24 extensions over four years, finally, it shut down last summer and we stopped collecting millions of dollars a week."
The result was a stoppage of federal airport projects, Shaheen said, noting that a runway extension project at the Nashua Airport was stalled.
"I don't think that's the way Congress ought to work," Shaheen said. She said the Senate worked for more than a year on a strong bipartisan bill "and it seems to me the House ought to do the same."
Cliff Sinnott, executive director of the Rockingham Planning Commission, who was also on the conference call with reporters, said passage of the bill would "restore some sanity" to the process his agency goes through in trying to look ahead and plan future transportation needs for the region.
Sinnott said the federal transportation bills traditionally provide "well more than half" of the federal funding for transportation projects in the state, "and we've been limping along since 2009 with continuing resolutions on the old surface transportation bill."
Sinnott said the New Hampshire Department of Transportation has begun floating the bonds for Interstate 93, but said, "It puts a real exclamation point on the need to get reauthorization done because those bonds are pledged against future federal funds."
Charbonneau, in an interview following the conference call, said his firm is a sub-contractor for paving at exits 1 and 5 on Interstate 93.
"One of the frustrating things is that they want competitive bids, you have to have qualified contractors, but then you can't run a business by planning only two months at a time," he said.
"In Washington," he said, "we've got to start doing what's right for America instead of special political agendas and look at the infrastructure and deal with it."
Charbonneau said the state's 10-year highway plan "has been cut in half" while "people are still crashing on 93."
He the number of Continental employees working on Interstate 93 varies day-to-day but he said that at Exit 1, "we have 20 trucks, but all different parts of the company will participate at any one time.
"It's a major issue to the construction industry as a whole," Charbonneau said. "You have work that is supposed to be funded by the federal government on a quarterly basis. If they stop collecting the gas tax, we lose that revenue on a daily basis while they bicker in Washington and that money never comes back."
On the House side, U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., said in a statement that he supports he supports an extension of the transportation bill and, like Granite Staters, is "tired of short-term fixes for important issues."
But he said, "It's also important that we get the right bill to effectively address our surface transportation needs. I'm optimistic that Congress can work in a bipartisan fashion to come up with a bill that provides funding for a longer period, cuts red tape and reforms the administrative process within the transportation sector."
U.S. Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H.,signed onto a letter with four other congressmen on Monday urging the House leadership to reconcile differences.
By John DiSatso
He called for House passage of "a long-term surface transportation reauthorization would provide the transportation stakeholder community with at least two years of certainty for funding and policies that will allow states and local communities to advance critical infrastructure projects.
"In New Hampshire, this means that the state could borrow $155 million for the much-needed widening of I-93,"he said.
"While the Senate bill is not perfect, and more work can be done to ensure the fiscal solvency of the transportation fund, Granite Staters expect and deserve a bipartisan solution to this stalemate. We can't continue to expect our state and contractors to plan and execute projects in the face of such uncertainty," Bass said.