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I-49 a focus for Congressional candidates Witt, Westerman

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The two men battling to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, in Congress next year tackled the topic of infrastructure in separate interviews Thursday (July 17), just two days after the House passed a temporary fix to keep the federal highway trust fund afloat until the middle of next year.

The bill, which passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support, would keep the trust fund afloat until May of next year. The New York Times reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, would likely scrap the Senate's version of the bill in order to move the House version to a floor vote before the August recess.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, cried foul and said the bill was essentially depleting assets from one fund to keep another fund afloat, which he said was not responsible governance.

"They're trying to keep the trust fund funded. But if you look at what happened there, they're robbing programs like the leaking underground storage tank fund, which people paid into it to fix underground storage tanks, not to have the money robbed and put into some other fund that it wasn't ever intended to go into."

The Republican state representative said moves like the one initiated earlier this week by the House signal why people are fed up with Washington.

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt, the Democratic nominee in the 4th District House race, said he thought the bill was "good" but did have some concerns.

"I think it's good. Anything to help replenish that fund is going to be good for Arkansas," he said, adding his concern about whether the bill would properly address local infrastructure needs.

"The one thing I was concerned about, and I haven't gotten into that part of it yet, is particularly the federal aid side because the federal (aid for states) is the funding that cities and counties use for their bridges and roads, so I was concerned about that."

Witt released his own infrastructure plan this week, which focused on completing Interstate 49 from Alma to Texarkana, as well as construction of Interstate 69 in the eastern portion of the 4th District. The completion of these projects, he said, would lead to economic development during both the construction phase of the projects, as well as in the years and decades following completion of the projects for the communities along the interstate routes.

Asked how a freshman member of Congress from rural Arkansas could influence the House and Senate to pass the funding needed to complete the district's infrastructure needs, Witt said his eight years in Washington as President Bill Clinton's FEMA director would pay dividends for the expansive 4th District.

"Well, I've always believed that one person and one voice can make a difference. And I think I have enough respect on both sides of the aisle (from) the years I've worked with Republicans and Democrats that maybe I can have a stronger voice as a freshman than most people would."

He also said he was in favor of a bill by U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-Maryland, that would create an "infrastructure bank" to make loans to states and municipalities to fund infrastructure projects. Bonds sold through the bank would theoretically be bought by U.S. corporations, which Delaney's House website said would allow "repatriation while ensuring U.S. corporations’ tax savings are truly invested in the U.S. economy to grow quality jobs" and encourages public-private partnerships.

"It is a very good approach. You know, we've got trillions of dollars in off-shore accounts. And by partnering with those corporations and allowing them to bring back some of that money tax-free and buying bonds to finance infrastructure projects, doing the 'infrastructure bank' is the right approach," Witt said. "But I think it's important that it's not only the federal government's role and responsibility, we're going to have to have a partnership with state and local and the corporate world, as well, in the private sector because it will benefit our economy, it will create jobs. And I think particularly in the 4th District, if we can get I-49 finished and I-69, it's going to really help the economic growth of the 4th District and it creates thousands of jobs."

Westerman said Witt's plan was short on specifics and workable solutions.

"I mean, he talks about the problem. He talks about (how) infrastructure's important to the economy and he talks about public-private partnerships, and he doesn't say what a PPP is there. Which that would be my first question there, is what exactly does my opponent mean when he refers to a public-private partnership? Is he talking about privately owned and operated toll roads and bridges? I'm not sure what he's talking about there."

Witt, a Dardanelle native and former Yell County judge, said he did not support the privatizing of public infrastructure, such as toll roads, though he suggested it should be considered at some point.

"I don't think that I would be for that right now, but at some point every option should be looked at so that we can get the full benefit of infrastructure projects. I think that working through creating this 'infrastructure bank' first and then seeing what we have to do when we get down the road. We've got to get some economic development in Arkansas and the fourth district particularly and I think we (should) look at all options, and what's best for Arkansas and what's best for the 4th District."

Neither man would say that earmarks would be a good way to fund construction of infrastructure needs — especially along the proposed route of I-49 — though the Office of Management and Budget shows several earmark-funded projects over a four year period along what is now I-49 in Northwest Arkansas.

Westerman said if elected, he planned to demonstrate the need for funding I-49 and other projects as a way to get them moved up the priority list for the federal funding versus attempts to get the House to reintroduce earmarks.

The Hot Springs Republican said the biggest challenge to infrastructure funding right now is a combination of wasteful spending at the federal level, specifically citing the Affordable Care Act, as well as challenges at the local level. He said a bill he introduced during the 2011 legislative session that would have eliminated sales taxes on construction materials for public projects like roads and bridges would have made a big difference in reducing the cost of projects across the state, many of which receive federal dollars.

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"If that's a publicly funded project, you're borrowing the money to pay taxes and that money gets paid back by the taxpayers. So over a 20-year bond, you're paying 1.6 times or more the cost just to finance the sales taxes in the project," he said.

Whoever wins in November is sure to face additional fights over federal infrastructure funding, with President Obama having already proposed a $302 billion transportation program over four years and giving Congress a tongue-lashing over the bill passed earlier this week that funds the federal highway trust fund only through May 2015.

“Congress shouldn’t pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road for a few months, careening from crisis to crisis,” The New York Times quoted Obama as saying. “We should be investing in the future.”

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