Alaska Congressman Don Young said Wednesday he wants to get the nation moving, telling the Kenai Chamber of Commerce he believes government's top priority should be improvements to the nation's transportation infrastructure.
"If you don't solve this transportation issue, the legacy we leave behind will be the wrong legacy, because future generations cannot provide the economic base for all the other problems we're seeing," Young told the chamber. "So I'm asking this administration, I'm asking my leadership, to go for the $375 (billion) with a user fee."
Young said his bill would not be funded through the general fund, but through some sort of user fees. Whether that's an increased gasoline tax, a vehicle registration fee or some other revenue, he hasn't decided.
However, Young said the current infrastructure is aging and ill-equipped to handle the transportation needs of a growing population and should be addressed now. He pointed to statistics that show the average American worker spends nearly 70 hours per year stuck in traffic to illustrate his point that significant upgrades need to be made in order to move people and products.
"When you cannot deliver on time, it affects the economic base of this country," he said.
Young is in a battle with both the Senate and White House over just how much spending needs to go into transportation. He is pushing a six-year, $375 billion package, while the Senate has proposed a $318 billion package and the White House has said it only wants to see $244 billion in spending.
Young, not known for backing down from a fight, said he's sticking with his proposed bill though he did say he might be willing to settle for $120 billion over the next two years in order to regroup and make another push for a long-term package.
"It gives me a shot again," he said of a two-year bill, noting his term as Transportation chair doesn't run out for three years.
The bottom line, he said, is that Americans have to realize upgrades to highways and other infrastructure can either be funded now or paid for down the road.
"You're going to pay now because if you don't pay now, you're going to pay more in the future," he said.
What Young's bill would mean for Alaska is still being worked out. However, he pointed to three major projects the Knik Arm crossing, the Ketchikan Bridge project and a highway to Southeast Alaska as major priorities. After that, he said he'll be looking at a number of smaller Alaska projects he mentioned the Kenai Spur Highway extension specifically as additional priorities.
Whatever form an eventual transportation bill takes, Young said it's a given that Alaska projects should make out fairly well.
"Alaskans are probably better off than anybody else. We get five dollars for every dollar we put into the pot. Most states get 95 cents. I'd like to take a little credit for that," Young said, adding that Alaska deserves that higher level of funding because of its status as a diverse, growing state.
"We're a new state and we need infrastructure," he said.
Answering questions from the audience, Young briefly touched on a couple other local projects in need of federal funding. One of those, Kenai's bluff erosion control project, he said could be included in a new water bill being discussed in Congress.
"We expect to get it done," he said, though he said that like most other things before Congress, it's not a sure thing.
"Hopefully, I'm not telling you that four years down the road," he said.
As far as a proposal being pushed by Kenai Mayor John Williams to create a Southcentral regional transportation corridor to the tune of $100 million for the Kenai Peninsula over three years Young indicated he's familiar with the plan, but that it could be a tough sell even if he gets his $375 billion bill through Congress and the White House.
"We're going to be working as hard as we can to make sure this is a regional-type transportation system," Young said, but he noted that unless he gets his $375 billion bill, such a regional transportation plan would be unlikely.
"If I get below that, I'm going to have some problems solving all the problems in the state of Alaska. I will tell you up front there may be a possibility I may not get a six-year bill."
Quizzed on the recent No Child Left Behind bill, Young said he believes the legislation has a lot of problems, and without changes could represent a major challenge for the state because it doesn't take into consideration the special challenges inherent to Alaska.
"The idea that every teacher has to have a master's degree in every subject they teach is a disaster," Young said.
He said that unless U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige gives Alaska some freedom to implement its own standards, Alaska may very well have to challenge the federal law.
"If they do not give us latitude, the state has to say, 'No.' They have to step up to the plate and say, 'No, this is wrong.'"
As for his future in Congress, the 16-term House member said he has no intention of moving on anytime soon. Asked about his plans once his term as Transportation chair is up, Young wasn't shy about stating he intends to continue to be a major player on the nation's political scene.
"We're looking at Speaker (of the House)," he said.
He said he's not entirely sure now whether he wants to take on those responsibilities, but he said he believes the only way to get the attention of his fellow lawmakers and get support for Alaska issues is to be as noisy and visible as possible something Young said he'll certainly continue to do.
"If you don't growl a little bit, nobody'll feed you anything."
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