The federal government must invest in the country’s transportation infrastructure because aging highways, waterways and railroads are “at the tipping point,” U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster told an audience in Allentown Tuesday.
“There are some in Washington who say we shouldn’t have that role. I just say they are wrong,” said Shuster, an Altoona-area Republican who this year became chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He spoke at the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce’s annual transportation forum, held at the Mack Trucks Customer Center.
Shuster noted that even Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and an advocate of the free market, saw infrastructure as a responsibility of government, not the private sector.
“The transportation system is… essential to the economy,” he said. “It’s one of the few things that every American is touched by every day.” In November, Shuster, 53, won election to a seventh term representing the 9th Congressional District in the southwestern part of the state.
Shuster is the son of former Congressman Bud Shuster. He won the seat vacated by his father in 2001.
The senior Shuster also headed the powerful transportation committee – during the 1990s, a time when Pennsylvania received hundreds of millions of dollars for road and bridge projects. He wrote legislation that increased highway money over six years and was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
That kind of cooperation is rare on Capitol Hill today. States like Pennsylvania, with the nation’s largest share of structurally deficient bridges – are desperate for federal funding. In Lehigh and Northamptoncounties, 17 percent and 20 percent of bridges, respectively, are deficient.
Indeed, Pennsylvania receives only slightly more in annual federal funding for highways and bridges now than it did a decade and a half ago, when the senior Shuster was in charge – $1.6 billion now vs. $1.2 billion then. Further complicating matters, Congress has kept federal transportation programs limping along with short-term extensions that undermine long-term planning and projects.
Speaking to an audience of about 100, Shuster detailed some of his priorities, such as expanding American ports so they can accommodate larger ships and upgrading railroad transportation in the Northeast Corridor.
The United States, he said, needs “to figure out how to run a higher speed – not a high speed – rail system to move people.”
He complained that California has embarked on a high speed “railroad to nowhere.” The money for that project would be better spent on public transportation along the more densely populated stretch between Washington and Boston, he said.
Shuster noted that historically transportation bills have passed with bipartisan support. In his father’s day, however, the Congressional deal making machinery was greased by so-called earmarks – funding targeted to specific projects, including many that critics considered wasteful.
Asked about the impact of Congress’ recent moratorium on earmarks, Shuster made his unhappiness clear.
Congress, he argued, exercises its authority to set spending priorities through earmarks. If Congress isn’t deciding how to spend the money, then the president or “some bureaucrat who is sitting in a cubicle” is, he said.
At this point, Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent joined Shuster at the podium. Dent, R-15th District, cited a number of area highway projects, such as the Highway 33 extension in Northampton County, that were funded by earmarks.
“We have to figure out how to maintain Congressional authority… I’m not willing to give one more inch to the executive branch,” Shuster said. “At some point we have to bring [earmarks] back.”