A large HTC-8660 grey and red striped 60-ton Link-Belt crane, trailered by Keen Transport from New Kingstown, PA, lead the procession of a dozen idle pieces of heavy construction equipment in and around the National Mall and Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 28. It was all part of Start Us Up USA! - the last of three rallies held around America to call on the federal government to reauthorize critical transportation spending. The co-sponsors of the rally, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and the Associated Equipment Distributors, want to communicate the impact of the recession and lack of federal funding for the construction industry. The event expressed the critical need of a new multi-year highway bill now.
House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) was keynote speaker, with the Capitol and more idle equipment as a backdrop in a field of 5,500 orange flags representing 550,000 laid off workers. With over a half million construction jobs lost since the height of the industry in 2006, Chairman Oberstar exhorted the compelling need for the new bill saying, "Our committee, for two and a half years, has held hearings on the Surface Transportation Program, and the changes we need to restructure the department of transportation. We need to recreate the federal transit and highway administration, and establish an office to expedite projects in three months, instead of three years as it is today.
"By doing this, we can put people to work faster than we have been able to in the past - condense those 108 categories of federal programs at the floor, formulate programs, and give states the flexibility they need," he continued. "We need accountability, transparency, and responsibility to develop six-year strategic investment plans and annual bench mark reporting, so you know where your dollars are going. So people can see the results, in their lifetime and not wait until the next generation to see the benefits of these investments."
"Surveying of states shows that 15 have cut back on spending, and another 19 states will cut back on their 80\20 program next year," Oberstar added. "That means whatever gains we made in the stimulus side will be offset by losses on the regular program side. Those unsettling numbers are real. So let's act now! With your help, with your strong support, as you have been consistently supporting our six-year investment bill, we will put America to work. We can create six million new jobs!"
"Across the country, time is running out for the men and women of this industry as job losses continue to mount and prevent a broader economic recovery," said Toby Mack president of AED. "New transportation funding is a critical component to spurring a recovery of the construction equipment industry nationwide and improving our nation's infrastructure," added Dennis Slater, president of AEM.
Link-Belt Crane, one equipment manufacturer participating in the rally, urged its employees, customers, and distributors to sign the Start Us Up USA! petition, contact their representatives in Congress, or write letters to the editors of their local newspapers.
Jeff Weller, general manager of Link-Belt Mid-Atlantic, Richmond, VA, the Link-Belt crane distributor supplying the HTC-8660 for the rally, said the industry is not asking for a handout. "The intent is to demonstrate to our elected leaders that the industry needs some decisive action on their part to pass a multi-year highway bill that will give the industry the confidence to invest in new equipment and job creation."
Chuck Martz, Link-Belt chairman, CEO and president agreed by saying "this funding is critical, long-term, not just to our industry, but to our country. It directly affects our international competitiveness. Similarly, delaying this funding not only affects the industry, but also the overall employment rate and our prospects for economic recovery."
Mack Trucks and Volvo Road Machinery have seen a downturn effect from the economy. In support of the rally, Göran Lindgren, president & CEO of Volvo Construction Equipment North America, said, "We believe it is important to make our voice heard in Washington. The construction equipment industry plays an important role in the recovery of the U.S. economy. The recession has severely impacted our industry. As long as there is no fully funded multi-year highway bill, construction contractors will not have confidence in the future since long-term planning for large infrastructure improvement projects will be held back.
"If a fully funded multi-year highway bill were to be voted in soon, contractor confidence would return which would speed up recovery of not only the construction equipment industry but also the broad U.S. economy," Lindgren concluded.
Monty Boyd, president and CEO of Whayne Supply Co. in Louisville, KY, who runs one of the nation's oldest and largest Caterpillar dealerships in the country, understands the difficulties of managing a business in a tough economy. "In this economy, each day is a challenge to keep our workers employed," said Boyd. "Passing this highway bill will make a huge difference for our roads and infrastructure, and it's the best way to put people back to work."
The unemployment rate for the construction segment is above 17 percent, more than any other industry in America, including the auto and financial sectors. Put another way, two out of every twenty-five jobs lost since the beginning of 2008, can be traced to the downturn in construction equipment spending.
There is no more short-term solution. A long-term multi-year reauthorization highway bill proposed by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee would create or sustain approximately six million family-wage jobs in the United States while improving our nation's infrastructure and laying the foundation for future economic growth.
The cost of no new bill
According to various institutes and highway administrations, commuters in major metropolitan areas waste 4.2 billion hours annually stuck in traffic - costing at least $87 billion each year in lost productivity and wasted fuel. At least 33 percent of our nation's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 26 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. On top of that, more than half of all highway fatalities - 22,000 deaths annually - are related to deficient roadway conditions.
Chairman Oberstar is still pushing for an end-of-the-year highway bill, but without continued support and pressure, this urgent matter may be lost to other issues before Congress.
Gini McKain is a construction writer based in Maryland and can be reached at [email protected]