Mr. VITTER. Mr. President, now that time has run out, I am excited to be here to talk about the highway bill, important work of the American people that we must get done this week. I am here to stand in strong support of H.R. 3, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005.
Last year, I traveled Louisiana extensively, campaigning all around the State. I heard concerns expressed in every part of the State about the importance of making sure that we in Louisiana get our fair share of Federal highway funding. In the past, Louisiana was a donor State, which means our State's taxpayers contributed more in gas tax revenue than they got back from the Treasury in highway moneys. As one of the newest members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I worked hard this year to ensure that we try to change this unfair state of affairs. So Louisiana's rate of return will substantially increase under the bill before us from about 90.5 cents for every dollar that we send in Louisiana taxpayer money to the Federal Government to 95 cents on the dollar. That is a huge jump. It is still not a dollar--we need to go further--but it is a dramatic improvement.
This increase will provide my State with $2.9 billion over the next 5 years, funding that is critical to ensure that work continues on one of my State's major corridors, I-49, as well as many other Louisiana highway projects.
Providing additional funding for I-49 has been a goal of mine since my days in the House of Representatives. Upon assuming my seat in the Senate this January, I have continued to fight for those additional I-49 dollars. That
is why I initiated a letter in February to Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Jeffords calling for them to support a significant level of funding for the corridor improvement program in the highway reauthorization bill. That letter was cosigned by five colleagues.
As a member of the committee that produced that bill, I am also pleased that we were able to agree on language that would redress a serious transportation and safety issue for my State. You see, Louisiana is the 22nd most populous State, yet it ranks third in the Nation in the number of collisions at highway-railroad crossings and fifth in the Nation in the number of railroad fatalities.
Along the 3,000 miles of tracks in Louisiana are over 6,000 rail crossings, more than any other State except Illinois. So the bill we crafted would provide $178 million for the elimination of hazards and the installation of protective devices at railroad highway crossings.
I wanted to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues, in particular those on the Environment and Public Works Committee, for agreeing to the inclusion in the highway bill of three significant amendments that I offered. I thank Chairman Inhofe for his work on behalf of these amendments.
One of the amendments would ensure that emergency evacuation routes are
emphasized as a program priority under the Multistate Corridor Program. The second amendment I authored would channel additional dollars to hurricane evacuation routes under the Federal Infrastructure Performance and Maintenance Program. And the third will help local officials complete much faster, and at much lower cost locally, a highway project connecting the parishes of Houma and Thibodaux, LA. The inclusion of these amendments in the managers' amendment will greatly benefit Louisiana and other coastal States across the country that experience frequent hurricanes.
As noted in the Times Picayune and other Louisiana newspapers, the 2004 evacuation of Louisiana due to Hurricane Ivan was disturbingly slow and marked by traffic gridlock. Traffic was backed up for 26 hours in Baton Rouge and 14 hours in New Orleans, while nearly 4,500 cars per hour were crossing the Mississippi River on I-10 at the peak of evacuation. Two of my amendments will provide additional funding for evacuation routes such as I-49, La. 1, and La. 3127 during hurricanes or other emergencies. Providing Federal resources to upgrade and maintain evacuation routes throughout the State will certainly help avoid the astounding gridlock and danger that occurred during the evacuation of Hurricane Ivan.
The third amendment I offered will expand the scope of an existing Federal highway project without increasing the cost-share burden on the local community and State. Without my amendment, the areas of Houma and Thibodaux, LA, would have had to come up with as much as $5 million more money. This transportation project will establish a new north-south evacuation route that is vitally important to residents of Houma and Thibodaux and all of those areas in southeast Louisiana.
I thank, again, the full EPW Committee, the chairman, Mr. Inhofe, the ranking member, Mr. Jeffords, the subcommittee chairman and the subcommittee ranking member and all of the staff who have assisted on this bill, particularly Andrew Wheeler and Ruth Van Mark. I call on my colleagues to support the chairman and ranking member in their efforts to shepherd this bill through the Senate and through important conference committee negotiations.
Congress has been extending funding for Federal aid to highway programs six times. The current extension is set to expire on May 31 this year, a little over 2 weeks away. We need to pass this bill. Then we need to quickly go to conference with the House and resolve our differences with the other Chamber before that important May 31 deadline.
That is when the current extension expires and funding for Federal aid to highway programs will run out. I know that is a tall order, but all of our States' transportation needs, our Nation's transportation needs cannot wait any longer.
I yield the floor.