By Jonathan Samples
The future of a long-term federal transportation bill is a question mark for many in the transportation industry, including the nearly 7,000 workers at Joliet's Vulcan Materials Company Quarry.
U.S. Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) met with some of those workers on Wednesday to discuss the importance of a long-term bill, which she said is currently stuck in partisan gridlock.
"This bill is not a Republican bill, it's not a Democrat bill; it's a bill that both the House and the Senate should pass," Biggert said. "We need to stop this politicking and really sit down."
Currently, a special conference committee is negotiating different versions of a federal transportation bill that have been drafted by the House and Senate. The House bill would extend funding for five years and cost $260 billion, but was never brought up for a vote. The Senate bill, which passed a Senate vote, would only extend funding for two years and cost $109 billion.
The House transportation bill has not received support from Democrats because of its proposals to construct the Keystone XL Pipeline and limit the regulation of coal ash, Biggert said. However, the Illinois Republican said she thinks those proposals should be made into separate bills, as long as it helps to pass a long-term transportation bill.
"The House has included Keystone and the regulation of coal ash, but that's one of the reasons the Senate doesn't want to take on the House bill," Biggert said. "Lets just get the big bill done and stop fooling around with the side bars."
Biggert has stood separate from many of her GOP colleagues by supporting the Senate version of the bill, which the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates would create 67,900 jobs in Illinois. Although she would prefer to see a five-year bill, Biggert said the Senate bill is better than another extension.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has suggested that Congress pass a six-month extension of the current short-term bill, which is set to expire on June 30. Biggert warned Vulcan employees that this would just push back many necessary long-term construction projects, which cannot begin unless their funding is guaranteed.
Vulcan spokesperson Joshua Robbins said that a long-term bill is crucial for the road-based materials industry. Up to 25 percent of the quarry's sales are for road-based materials, and a lack of long-term construction projects affects the quarry's output, which impacts not only construction workers but also workers at Vulcan's quarry.
"The positive effect of a long-term transportation funding bill is that there's long-term planning and implementation at the state level," Robbins said. "When you have an unknown on the stream of funding, it's difficult or impossible to plan long-term projects."
This lack of long-term projects lowers the demand for stone, which subsequently lowers the demand for labor.
Managers and workers are waiting for a decision on the transportation bill, which could determine whether or not workers would be laid off.
"The plant shut down last week because of the inactivity we're seeing this year," Vulcan area manager Jeff May said. "Guys may be laid off soon, which is unheard of this time of year."
May said the quarry typically produces 1 to 2 million tons of product annually and is on pace to produce less than 900,000 tons in 2012.
Robbins said that this decline in production is reflected in Vulcan's national production numbers. During its peak over the last 11 years, the company produced 259 million tons of product annually and employed 10,000 to 11,000 workers. In 2011, he said the company's production dropped 50 percent to 143 million tons, and the number of workers declined to 7,000.