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Lobbying group grounded

Washington appeal held via conference call

NORTH LIBERTY– In an ironic twist, local officials were unable to catch a plane to Washington, D.C., to talk with elected officials about transportation problems in the Corridor.
A coalition of city council members, mayors, Iowa City Area Chamber representatives, city managers, business owners and the Iowa City Area Development group regularly make a trip to the nation’s capital each year to collectively lobby for federal funding for local projects, often transportation-related ones. This year’s group of 17 was to leave Sunday, Jan. 31, but winter weather cancelled most of their outgoing flights.
That left the grounded group to make long-distance conference calls with Iowa Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Congressman Dave Loebsack in order to make the annual appeal.
North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar and Mayor Amy Nielsen were this year’s North Liberty delegates. Heiar said the agenda, as always, was focused on transportation funding.
“Of course, we always talk about Highway 965, and a lot of times Coralville and North Liberty jointly talk about that effort because it affects both communities,” Heiar said. “We make them aware of the progress we are making, and that any type of federal subsidy would help. We also make them aware of how important the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County funding is for those projects as well.”
Senator Grassley was on North Liberty’s list of make-up calls. Heiar said he focused Grassley’s attention on the I-380 interchange and the Penn Street Bridge.
“We are really going to need to widen that or put a new bridge in to eliminate the bottleneck that happens there now,” said Heiar. “We also talked about the fact we are partnering with Coralville and the Iowa DOT to work on the I-380 interchange at Forevergreen, which is now on the IDOT’s 5-year road plan.”
For that to happen, the federal government has to continue its funding to the states in the form of a transportation bill.
The federal government’s Highway Trust Fund, largely financed by user fees including a federal fuel tax and excise taxes on certain vehicles, has been facing shortfalls in the billions of dollars for at least 10 consecutive years. Each year, the fund has been temporarily bolstered by congressionally-approved cash infusions from the general fund of the Treasury. With changing trends in the way people drive and fuel-efficient automobiles becoming more prevalent, many at the federal level are calling for a more permanent solution to the support the problematic transportation fund that is fast approaching insolvency.
In a telephone call with the Leader, Grassley later said his office had nothing substantial to announce to the delegates about federal action in that regard.
“We are going to be able to make sure highway funding is continued beyond the May date when it sunsets,” said Grassley. “Whether or not we are able to get agreement on long term funding, I wouldn’t be predict at this point.”
It has been since 2006 that the federal government passed a 5-year transportation bill; since then, the longest funding cycle has been just two years.
Grassley said his colleagues on Capitol Hill were not in disagreement on the push for a long-range solution.
“I can stay from the standpoint of policy, which is developed by the Transportation Committee, that there is a real good chance they are going to reach a consensus on what should be done, but then it goes to the Finance Committee, and financing it is very difficult,” Grassley said.
To address financing, some legislators have proposed raising the federal gas tax; currently around 18 cents per gallon, it has not been adjusted for inflation in 20 years. Other proposals include raising import fees on foreign oil or making drivers pay a per-mile toll. Grassley pointed to a proposal by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) that actually lowers the federal gasoline tax in an attempt to give states more power in how transportation dollars are spent.
“Then you get away from issue of all the federal regulations involved with spending the highway money, which reduces the efficiency of the money by 30 percent; in other words, if you didn’t have all these regulations on how these federal tax dollars ought to be spent, it can go 30 percent further,” Grassley said.
When asked if he supported a gas tax hike, Grassley said he is still considering all measures.
“All these things are out there, but you are up against an anti-tax attitude in D.C. Even when the Democrats controlled both houses of congress, they didn’t propose increasing gas tax,” he said. “I haven’t made my mind up about Senator Lee’s proposal, but it is coming from my philosophy.
Grassley anticipates a successful bill will be a compromise of ideas.
“I think we could have more revenue– I don’t want to say just from a gas tax because I’ll look at all forms– but we could increase revenue pretty easily if we could get an agreement on reducing all the government regulations that build highways with federal dollars,” said Grassley. “Couple the decrease in regulations with an increase in revenues, so you get the federal dollars going further and give more leeway to the states. I think you can get a compromise like that through.”
As for any promises the Senator made to the City of North Liberty, they too were philosophical rather than financial.
“When they get around to asking for grants in that area we said we would write letters (of support),” Grassley said.
For now, Heiar will take that.
“We are continuing to go through the grant process. The MPOJC just sent out their grant applications,” he said. Currently, federal funding for phase 2 of Highway 965 improvements has been secured, which will begin this spring with a reconstruction of the Scales Bend Road intersection, and about $1.9 million for phase 3 has also been allocated through federal funding.
“But I would say there is a potential risk there, that it might not be there when it comes time to do that project,” Heiar said. “The fact is, if this money is awarded for Fiscal Years 18 or 19 and there is no money there, then we’re not going to get that money. It’s pretty simple. That’s why the transportation bill is so important.”
And Heiar plans to continue his annual trek to D.C. to let legislators know.
“I think it’s important to get that face-to-face discussion with our senators and congressmen. We have a real opportunity to spend quality time with them in a small group,” he said. Federal staffers visit the area throughout the year and can see first-hand the transportation problems in the area, Heair said, “but it’s not too often we get to visit elected officials, so I do think it’s worthwhile and I think other communities would say the same.”