As lawmakers in Washington wrangle over a way to prop up the failing Federal Highway Trust Fund, the national Highway Materials Group this week urged Congress to find a long-term solution to keep the United States competitive in the global economy.

As lawmakers in Washington wrangle over a way to prop up the failing Federal Highway Trust Fund, the national Highway Materials Group this week urged Congress to find a long-term solution to keep the United States competitive in the global economy.


In a letter dated May 13 to Senate and House leaders, the national group of road builders say they are in favor of "any user-based funding options" to keep money rolling into a fund that has floundered for over a decade as gas mileage for cars and trucks improved and less money went into the fund.


The Highway Trust Fund expires May 31. Nearly 1 million jobs will be affected in the highway materials industry and "time is running out for Congress to act," the Highway Materials Group states.


"If they keep kicking the can down the road it’s going to fall in a pot hole," said Danny Straessle, spokesman for the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department.


At least 70 AHTD projects have been cancelled because of the May 31 expiration, and 131 are at risk of being cancelled, Straessle said Friday. The Federal Highway Administration could be closing shop on June 1, he added.


U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said in an emailed statement Wednesday that he is confident a short-term fix will be found by May 31 and he is "committed to ensuring a mechanism is in place to continue funding roads while lawmakers hash out a long-term solution."


"America’s economic vitality depends on an integrated, national intermodal surface transportation network that moves goods and people to maximize global competitiveness, quality of life, and economic prosperity for all citizens," the Highway Materials Group letter states. "Unfortunately, the investments needed to maintain and expand the highway system have been inadequate. As a result, America is ill prepared to meet the competitive demands of the global economy."


U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, announced Friday he will file legislation next week that will "plug the $15 billion deficit in the trust find without raising taxes."


"It will be common sense legislation that members on both sides of the aisle should get behind in order to fund our critical infrastructure construction and maintenance and to avoid these crisis deadlines in the future," Westerman said on the House floor Friday.


Westerman pointed out it was National Infrastructure Week and a long-term solution is "vital." He said he understood how the uncertainty creates delays and scheduling issues that increase costs on new projects.


Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Dianne Morrison said lawmakers see raising the gas tax as "political suicide."


A 14-cent increase would be needed to raise roughly $175 billion and maintain highway spending at current levels, according to the the Committee For A Responsible Federal Budget. The gas tax — 18.4 cents on gas and 24.4 cents on diesel — has not been raised since 1993.


Straessle said a gas tax increase would only be a short-term fix.


"The first year would be the most you ever get," Straessle said. "It’s not an effective method of financing road maintenance. There’s more going out than there is going in."


U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said on the House floor Wednesday that the House Ways and Means Committee has failed to hold a hearing on the issue since the Republican party took control.


The Transportation Construction Coalition counts 30 Highway Trust Fund extensions since 2009. Blumenauer said it was 24 extensions, but called for a "bold" move to fix the problem.


"Why is it that five states have been able to raise the gas tax this year, 19 in the previous two years, and we in Congress are confused and in disarray?" Blumenauer said on the House floor. "We have to think of elaborate mechanisms to enact short-term patches and not give America the certainty of a big, bold six-year transportation re-authorization the country needs."


States rely on federally highway funds to support, on average, more than 50 percent of their highway and bridge capital improvements, the coalition points out in a May 6 letter to House and Senate leaders.


Straessle said Arkansas highway and bridge projects are supported by about 70 percent funded by trust fund money.


Boozman said a long-term solution will "provide certainty for federally funded transportation projects in Arkansas and all across the country."


Boozman said by email that he "looked forward" to seeing Westerman’s proposal and is "anxious to work with his colleagues" in both chambers of Congress "to continue strengthening our nation’s infrastructure system."


Steve Forsgren, president of Forsgren Inc. General Contractors and one of the directors of the Arkansas Asphalt and Pavement Association, said the Highway Trust Fund has a "dead-end revenue stream" and the system has "outgrown the method."


Two other directors of the AAPA — Park Estes of APAC-Central and Cindy Williams of Time Striping, both of Fort Smith — have pointed out the inherent flaws of the gasoline tax and said it should be a percentage instead of a set amount. A sliding scale for inflation was also an idea.


The Highway Materials Group letter said that in addition to a "user-fee based funding option" there should be "innovated finance tools to provide federal and state transportation departments with the funding they need to make critical investments in our transportation infrastructure."