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The Center for Public Integrity’s Transportation Lobby project visits South Florida to discuss the grassroots impact of lobbying activity in the nation’s capital.

Bob Schafer just laid off another worker.

Schafer is a manager at Ranger Construction, a Florida-based company that builds roads in a state famously fueled by its own growth. For more than three decades, Ranger Construction helped connect all that development, but the economic recession has forced the company to cut more than one-third of its staff, which has dwindled to under a thousand.

Looking ahead, Schafer worries whether state funding cuts might eventually mean laying off even more workers. “It could shut the lights out,” Schafer says. At more than six feet tall, Schafer makes an imposing figure at construction sites. He appears as focused as he is bald — which is to say completely.

Schafer just came from checking his team’s progress with a four-mile highway widening project on Interstate 95 in Brevard County, a job that will keep about 30 of his employees on the payroll for the foreseeable future. Ranger Construction won the project, which is funded by the economic stimulus law, amid some tough bidding.

“A lot of these guys,” Schafer says, speaking of struggling home and commercial builders, “now they think they’re all road builders. So we went from projects with four or five bidders to maybe 15 or 20.”

The 2009 stimulus law helped Ranger Construction. But at the same time, Florida’s cash-strapped legislature is raiding state transportation funds to help pay for programs like education and health care. If you compare what Florida received under the stimulus law and what legislators in Tallahassee propose to take away again on top of last year, it’s nearly a wash, Schafer says.

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Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood speaks to the closing reception of the National Bike Summit in the Senate Dirksen building.

All that makes federal transportation spending as important to the road building industry as ever. But the road lobby is no longer the only one in the driver’s seat when it comes to setting transportation funding priorities. The Obama administration is determined to make its own mark on transportation policy by completing and repairing the current highway system while adopting an increasingly diverse menu of investments in mass transit, bike paths, and pedestrian walkways for neighborhood residents who don’t own a car.

The enhanced emphasis on multiple forms of transportation and their relationship to local development — known to supporters as “livability” policy — comes at a time when Congress has delayed passage of a new multiyear transportation bill that could cost as much as $500 billion. Transportation money is declining in real terms because the federal gasoline tax is not indexed to inflation. Given that, how this administration spends the money that is available is firmly under the microscope of an anxious road lobby.

Who is the road lobby?

Ranger Construction is local, but it is also a part of Vecellio Group Inc., a family-owned company that is ranked among the top 25 U.S. transportation builders. Owner Leo Vecellio, Jr. is additionally the current foundation chairman of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the group most closely identified with what many in Washington refer to as the road lobby.

The federal road gang, however, extends far beyond the companies that pour concrete and make basic materials and equipment needed to build new roads. It includes engineers who design highways, labor unions that work on them, automobile associations, toll road operators, truckers, and a variety of regional public and private coalitions. Together, these groups spent more than $65 million lobbying Congress in 2009 on a variety of issues including the next long-term transportation bill. Their political action committees have given more than $62 million to federal candidates since 2005.

But six months after the last federal transportation law expired, none of them have a new spending bill to show for all their efforts. An informal collection of construction industry executives, political operatives, lobbyists, and transportation writers who actually call themselves “The Road Gang” have for decades met to discuss federal policy. They represent perhaps the closest approximation to defining the catch-all that is the road lobby, or as this group also calls itself, “Washington’s highway transportation fraternity.” It is not so much secret as it can be insular.

And as the Senate works to craft its response to a $500 billion piece of legislation presently stalled in the House Transportation Committee, Senate Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer of California kicked off her own hearings by publicly asking leaders of this lobby to go through the House’s draft with a red pen, and tell her what it does and does not like.

Jobs will be on everyone’s list. The construction industry faces an unemployment rate hovering around 25 percent. Then-Missouri Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn testified recently that contractors in his state are more than twice as reliant on the state department for revenues than usual. And it is from the federal government that much of that state road money flows.

The message is troubling. But when it comes to the impact of federal transportation policy on American citizens, that message is also incomplete. And until the road lobby figures out how to best leverage not just its web of connections in Washington — well over 300 lobbyists in all — but also its own grassroots supporters in local districts, it will struggle mightily to make progress on the Hill. So, too, for everyone else in transportation.

The federal tank is running low on both vision and money. Despite the road lobby’s experience influencing the Congressional process, this time it has to sell that vision to the public in order to get the money. And the public, this administration argues, has shifted.

Livability advocates challenge transport vision

“We have the best system in the world for moving people,” says Greg Stuart, director of the Broward County, Florida, metropolitan planning organization. “It’s right at our back door.”

Stuart loves to talk about this system largely because his childhood idol helped design it. “Walt Disney knew how to move people,” Stuart says, describing how Florida’s famous amusement parks seamlessly and efficiently transport visitors by ferry, monorail, bus, train, and footpaths.

Stuart is working on his own vision for moving considerably more individuals around his Southeast Florida county. His office issued a transformational long-range report in December that describes Broward County — constrained by the Everglades to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east — as a place with nowhere left to build. “Public sentiment,” the report describes of local hearings and surveys, “favored transit over roadways by a margin of [two to one].” The vision is one of premium rapid bus lanes, dozens of transportation hubs, new freight projects, pedestrian investment, and yes, major highway expansions on Interstates 95, 595, and the Florida turnpike.

Since then Stuart has been meeting with local governments, business leaders, and citizen groups to expand the coalition for this vision of what has become a loaded term in federal transportation circles — “livability.”

There are some parallels to the transportation agenda of the Obama administration. Focusing on livability means bringing more transportation options to communities while also making a variety of housing options available and reducing Americans’ cost of living, say policy architects at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). They intend to do this, one official recently said, “before we undertake massive expansion” of existing roads.

“We don’t view it as pushing a livability agenda,” Polly Trottenberg, DOT assistant secretary for policy, recently said at a conference of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). “We feel the public is pushing this and we’re responding to a popular push.”

Despite that, the efforts ruffled some feathers within the traditional road gang, whose leaders stress they are by no means anti-transit so much as pro-new capacity for everyone. “Those of us who build roads or drive,” AASHTO director John Horsley pointedly told Trottenberg, “don’t think we’re chopped liver.” The influential group just issued a pair of reports on both the need for new capacity projects and the role of road investments in improving community livability.

DOT’s grant programs over the last year have leaned more heavily than usual toward transit projects, freight rail, and now, high speed rail. Congressionally authorized road spending still comprises most federal funds spent on transportation projects, but the road lobby has long viewed any carve-outs from its potential purse as violating the “user fee” principle. Their argument: The federal money comes mostly from fuel taxes paid by motorists and truck drivers, so it should be directed to investments benefiting drivers.

Things came to something of a head in March after DOT Secretary Ray LaHood stood atop a table at the National Bike Summit, where hundreds of cyclists gathered to demand things like adding bike lanes to streets.

“You have a full partner in Ray LaHood,” the secretary said in a speech that quickly made its way around the Internet. The DOT soon announced a policy statement that LaHood’s blog called “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.” That prompted a wave of criticism from groups like the American Highway Users Alliance, the American Trucking Associations, and the National Association of Manufacturers. The latter forecasted “an economic catastrophe” if the U.S. government treated bicycles the same as cars.

South Florida Bike Coalition director Kathryn Moore said she was confused by the uproar. “We’re not saying that we need fewer roads,” says Moore, who was at the bike meeting. “We just need different roads.” This sentiment to expand the use of roads to cyclists, pedestrians, and other non-motorists encapsulates the spirit of a movement to transform transportation policy. Some of the lowest hanging fruit for these advocates are actually Florida’s cities, four of which had the highest pedestrian death rates of the nation’s major metros during 2007-2008.

But the criticism continues from the traditionally powerful road lobby concerned with the long-term viability of the highway trust fund.

America, in relative terms, is simply not matching the federal transportation investments of past generations. Lawmakers failed to index the federal gasoline tax to rise with inflation, so its purchasing power is just half of what it was in 1993. The lobby managed to maintain its pace for a while through redirection of the portions of the highway trust fund previously diverted toward deficit reduction, but in 2008, lawmakers were forced to shore up the bleeding fund with an $8 billion transfer from general revenues. That is fast becoming an annual tradition as U.S. infrastructure continues to fall into disrepair. Everyone from builders to truckers now support a hike in the federal gasoline tax.

“Once the resources start to get scarce, then people start to retrench,” notes Janet Kavinoky, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s top transportation lobbyist. “The reason the LaHood thing got so much ire,” she says, is because to many industry groups, “it makes it look like we’re going to spread the peanut butter that much thinner” without proposing any new funding.

It is not so much a direct fight the transportation lobby has on its hands as it is a failure to agree to a common set of principles or priorities. Should the top federal priority be moving goods through the national economy? Or the individual user’s ability to get around their own community through a variety of options? Many groups came close to a common set of principles late last summer, but the effort fell short. While some of their leaders continue to quietly discuss it, their unresolved issues are among the reasons why the multiyear transportation bill remains stalled in Congress.

Stalled transport bill needs grassroots pressure

Most money funneled by the political action committees of the road lobby comes from relatively modest individual donations. But the industry leverages those collective donations well.

Road gang PACs, for instance, have showered House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar’s campaign committee and leadership fund with more than $600,000 since 2005. The chairman’s Minnesota seat has long been considered a safe one, but Oberstar’s campaign directed hundreds of thousands to the campaigns of his Democratic peers over that same span. Right now much of the construction industry is heavily reliant on this Congress, and in kind it is showing plenty of support for more than just leaders like Oberstar or Sen. Boxer.

“Part of our mentality has been to keep our heads down and work hard,” says Ranger Construction’s Schafer. “We need to be a lot more vocal.”

Schafer does not usually donate to federal campaigns. Last year, however, he did contribute a few hundred dollars to the road builders’ political action committee, which promises to support only candidates that work to maintain and expand the transportation system. More construction workers across the country need to get similarly involved and lobby their own lawmakers for more transportation investment, Chairman Oberstar says in a road builder-produced advocacy video, emphasizing that his colleagues will respond quicker to constituents than to him. It has arguably proven true in recent months.

“It’s like voting,” says Schafer. “You don’t have to vote. But if you don’t, you have no right to complain.”

The entire industry is certainly active in Washington. Alabama-basedVulcan Materials Co., which was hit particularly hard in Florida by the subprime collapse, spent $510,000 on more than nine federal lobbyists last year to weigh in on a new transportation bill and other concerns. Nine of the nation’s top 10 road and highway design firms combined to spend more than $4.1 million on federal lobbying last year. Eight of the top 10 have political action committees of their own, including Florida engineering firm PBSJ Corp., which took in more than three-quarters of its revenue last year from the public sector.

The road lobby’s resources are extensive, but the community has a big problem. It’s not just that federal money is tight. Even an initial transportation policy debate is unable to move forward, to say nothing of the usual delays in passing a bill. With dwindling fuel tax receipts, members of Congress say the process will remain stalled until more heat is generated in their home districts.

The Associated General Contractors, along with the road builders’ association, are co-chairs of the Transportation Construction Coalition. The coalition represents at least 30 trade associations and unions, more than half of which spent a combined $10.1 million on lobbying fees last year. The construction industry also bankrolls much of the broaderAmericans for Transportation Mobility campaign, an effort led by the nation’s top lobbying group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They know they need to do a better job building broad support at the local level, an expensive proposition at a time in which the industry is already spending millions in Washington on lobbying, advertising, and other research efforts, says Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the contractors.

One of the lobby’s greatest liabilities is actually the stimulus law. The road gang is trying to overcome a perception that the $787 billion stimulus package funded mostly infrastructure projects, even though transportation investments received only six percent of the money.

Community Asphalt Vice President John Morris, another Florida road contractor, notes his company recently began work on a stimulus project — a $559 million interchange near the busy Miami International Airport. The project will save at least 50 jobs at Community Asphalt, which already laid off dozens of workers. A drive during the evening rush hour backed up Morris’ description of the project’s importance to South Florida commuters.

“The public is getting good value for its money right now,” says Ranger Construction’s Schafer. “This is the time we ought to be dumping money in.”

Indeed, around the nation construction bids came in well below estimates. But public disenchantment with Congressional earmarks and the lack of vision in how federal dollars are spent make it hard to find new funds at a time when America could get more bang for its transportation bucks.

“The construction community has to grapple with that,” says the U.S. Chamber’s Kavinoky, whose campaign targets swing districts throughout the country. “How do we convince people that they’re getting what they pay for?”

Public willing to pay more for better transport

Last summer, the House Transportation Committee produced the framework of a $500 billion measure to recast federal transportation law through both increased investment and sweeping policy changes. But that proposal is stuck in committee until lawmakers find a way to pay for it.

Around the same time the House committee put its cards on the table last summer, the infrastructure advocacy group Building America’s Future, an effort of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, conducted a national poll on transportation issues that found the public’s top concerns were safer streets and more transportation options. Easing congestion is also of concern.

Similar polls have found that Americans are willing to pay more to make that happen. In states like Washington and Minnesota, voters proved as much by electing to raise state gasoline taxes in recent years. Where the breakdown exists is in their faith that the federal government can be an effective steward of additional money.

“Lack of money is both the challenge and the opportunity,” says James Corless, whose Transportation For America (T4America) campaign, co-chaired by smart growth and transit-oriented groups, thinks of itself as bringing the wider public into the federal transportation debate to join those who build, design, and operate the nation’s transportation network. “I would say that’s exactly the reason we’re in it,” Corless says.

The national campaign’s resources can’t be measured in the same way as the road gang’s lobbying figures or the wider business community’s national ad spending. But the impact of the group thus far is unmistakable. No matter who the lobbyist is, he or she eventually brings up “T4.” This is only heightened by the fact that many of the administration’s political appointees view the challenges through a similar lens. The “anti-highway, anti-growth” crowd, as one road building lobbyist characterized T4America architects last year in a presentation, are “active and emboldened.” Some veteran lobbyists say the group’s zeal is naive and out of touch with national economic concerns, a perception it is addressing.

T4America has put together an extensive collection of national partners ranging from real estate brokers to the AARP and environmental groups. But like those in the business community, the coalition is now expanding on its state and local efforts.

While Washington struggles to sell a national vision to Americans, movement is more often occurring at the regional level. In South Florida, for example, in 2006 a group of local leaders attempted to levy a sales tax on Broward County to use for transportation investments. Both the business community and a local smart growth partner of T4America were among the collaborators. “The problem was there was no consensus on what the hell this plan was,” says real estate counselor and broker Marianne Winfield of Brickell Bay Realty in Fort Lauderdale. “It died. A lot of people complained that they didn’t present the message properly.”

Other cities like Denver and Salt Lake City have figured that message out and succeeded, but the national groups are still struggling with the same challenge as Broward. They need to answer a fundamental question for the taxpayer to spend more money, as Corless puts it: “What are you giving me that I don’t already have?”

That campaign continues both within the road gang and outside it. “It’s difficult,” Corless adds. “We’ll all have to give up some of our parochial turf to get there.”

CORRECTION — 5/3/10: In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly identified a Ranger Construction I-95 widening project as occurring in Florida’s Martin County. The project is actually underway in Brevard County.

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