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With bicycle horns honking and placards declaring "Don't Water Down ISTEA," several hundred members of the National Association of Counties (NACo) descended on the Capitol earlier this month to bring a message to Congress concerning the nation's transportation law.
"We are here (today) because counties throughout America feel very strongly that the ISTEA reauthorization process should take place this year. We are saying let's get it done," Michael Hightower, vice chairman of the Fulton County (GA) Commission and president of NACo, said. "Quite frankly it is our top domestic issue this year."
When Congress passes a new version of the federal transportation law, known as the InterSurface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the new law will impact all levels of government and business throughout the country.
NACo, with a membership that includes approximately two-thirds of the country's 3,072 county governments, was one of the first groups to testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on ISTEA.
County officials have been quick to defend the current ISTEA program because of the local control and input guaranteed in the law. But NACo, while holding the "Keep ISTEA Strong" rally, plans not to take a stand on the most controversial element of ISTEA, namely how the government distributes highway funds.
"The funding issue focuses on donor and [recipient] states and I don't anticipate [NACo] to take on that issue because we represent counties located in both," Hightower said. "We are primarily concerned with continuing ongoing local input."
Several lawmakers spoke to the rally in support of ISTEA reauthorization. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told the crowd that they could not let the funding issue derail efforts to re-write the law.
"It is far better for all of us to work together to increase the total funding of ISTEA . . . rather than let ourselves get bogged down in petty in-fighting between states," Baucus said in his speech to the rally.
Following the rally, Baucus did warn that the any major changes to ISTEA, or its funding formulas, could slow the reauthorization process considerably.
"There is a reason for the current legislation and that is because various states and communities all got together and compromised to the current law," Baucus said. "I would not favor a significant change because I think it is virtually a non-starter and it would bog down our greater goal of getting more dollars for our nation's highways."
Thomas Petri (R-WI), the chairman of the Surface Transportation Subcommittee, also addressed the NACo members.
"We are determined to marshal the resources that are necessary to have [a] first class infrastructure and then to try and improve the program as best we can so that we do a good job for the American people of getting value for their dollar," Petri told the county officials. "With NACo's support and others in that coalition we will get the job done and we will renew ISTEA this Congress."
While members of Congress begin debate over the shape of the future ISTEA, many local officials are more concerned that Congress keeps the funding system stable. Money for the current ISTEA program runs out on October 1, 1997 and if the Congress does not re-authorize the law by then, county officials say there could be "chaos."
"We need continuity in the program," Kenneth Anderson, a county official from Minnesota, said. "The projects we are working on today are projects that will be built in 2000, 2001 and 2002. If we break cadence in the funding of the program we will have chaos out there."
Although much of the political fight over ISTEA will focus on the funding distribution, groups like NACo and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are already working to influence the policy aspects of ISTEA.