By Michelle Ganassi
The federal government is still without a transportation bill -- and for U.S. Rep. Mark Critz that is unacceptable.
Critz, D-Johnstown, spoke on the Somerset County Courthouse steps Friday afternoon about the need for Congress to come to a compromise and pass a comprehensive transportation bill, which, in turn, is also a jobs creation bill. Critz said it is a top priority for him.
"It's about time Congress starts working together here," he said.
Critz said that it has been 101 days since Congress passed a ninth extension of the current transportation bill. He admitted that when Democrats had control, they were also not able to pass a comprehensive plan.
"When Democrats had the House, Senate and presidency, we didn't pass the bill," he said "We share the blame."
But by not coming to a compromise, legislators create problems for the public, he said.
Critz said passing extensions in the middle of the highway construction season leaves uncertainty for businesses in that sector.
"From a business standpoint it is just poor business," he said.
Democratic county Commissioner John Vatavuk introduced Critz to the crowd and said with toll credits and commitments from the state there could be a Route 219 groundbreaking in the near future.
"We need to get that bill passed," he said.
Passing extensions does not help Route 219 because they are extensions of the older bill, which does not include toll credit language. Proponents of the highway project want to use toll credits as a state match for federal funding.
"We cannot come up with funding to complete 219 when we are so close," he said. "And that is frustrating."
Critz said that people need to contact their congressmen and senators and urge them to work on a compromise to the transportation bill.
"This isn't about me, this isn't about you, this is about the vitality of the region," he said.
Critz said he voted against the five-year House plan because he could not support many of the bill's elements. Those reasons include lowering Pennsylvania's funding from $1.7 billion to $1.58 billion and the elimination of the "Buy American" rule for transportation projects.
Critz supports the Senate version of the bill, which covers two years. He said it is not perfect, but it would add some certainty to the transportation sector.
Critz said 75 percent of the Senate supported the bill. He said it is bipartisan and does not deplete the Highway Trust Fund.
"It's time to swallow hard and come to a compromise," he said.
Critz is hopeful but not optimistic that a comprehensive bill can be passed before the June 30 deadline.
"I know they are working on it," he said. "At this point I am not optimistic they will pass a bill. They will probably pass another extension until Sept. 30."
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, is one of 47 lawmakers on a conference committee that is trying to reach agreement on a new transportation bill. The committee includes 33 congressmen and 14 senators. Shuster is the only committee member from Pennsylvania.
"We're making progress. A week ago, 10 days ago, it didn't seem like we were going to make progress, but we are making progress. I'm cautiously optimistic we're going to have a bill," he said during a telephone interview Friday ahead of Critz's event.
Shuster said staff would be working on a compromise over the weekend. He said it is a top priority to make sure any compromise includes the toll credit language that will help complete Route 219.
"That's one of my top priorities, being on the committee. I've been working on that for 10 years," he said. "It's my top priority and I'm one of the key negotiators on the bill."
As conferees continue to hammer out the final details of the plan, Shuster said he feels fairly confident that the group will come up with a plan that both the House and Senate can support. The plan, he said, is to file the committee report on Tuesday, giving legislators three days to vote on it ahead of the June 30 deadline.
"We're just working hard on it," he said. "It's been one of my top priorities, to make sure we get toll credits in the next transportation bill, and so far, so good. Stay tuned."