Lawmaker: Election year could put brakes on TEA-21

Lawmaker: Election year could put brakes on TEA-21

NEWARK, N.J. - The reauthorization of the umbrella highway spending bill known as TEA-21 is at risk of falling victim to election year politics, which could have adverse consequences for international trade projects, according to a leading Democratic lawmaker.

Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a longtime champion of the New York/New Jersey seaport, said TEA-21 will sunset at the end of this month, and was reauthorized on Sept. 30 on a temporary basis for five months or through Feb. 29. It wasn't fully reauthorized, "because we don't have the will in Congress to face up to the realities of the revenue stream." To fund the estimated $370 billion bill, a gas tax will have to be imposed that Republicans in the House are resisting, Menendez said at an appearance at the third annual Port of New York and New Jersey Port Industry Day in Bayonne.

"It boils down to this: (House Majority Leader) Tom Delay doesn't want his members to vote on a gas tax before next year's election," said Menendez, who as chairman of the democratic caucus is the third-ranking House Democrat. Menendez said it will become harder and harder to pass the legislation as the 2004 elections draw nearer.

The TEA-21 legislation is the blueprint for highway spending in the U.S. In recent years, momentum has gathered to include freight, intermodal and international trade-specific projects in the bill, and it is likely that a replacement bill will have more of a focus on freight than any of its predecessors.

In his speech, Menendez challenged the New York/New Jersey port community to unite behind a broad vision for international trade mobility in the region, one that would transcend freight movement and encompass manufacturing and research and development activities, to enhance the region's trade competitiveness. He noted that such concerns as reflected in bills such as TEA-21 are a priority for a dense area like New Jersey, which compete in Congress against other regional priorities such as dams in the west and midwest farm bills.

He also challenged the industry to come together on its own to solve congestion issues. He noted that earlier in his congressional career he urged pharmaceutical companies to unite around a plan to provide prescription drug benefits to senior citizens to head off efforts by Congress to impose a potentially more severe and objectionable solution on that industry. That industry didn't ultimately come together, sacrificing its lead on that issue. He warned the trade and maritime community not to allow something similar to happen.

Menendez may as well have been referring to state harbor trucking legislation in California. "We have to do something here or we will end up with something we don't like," he said.