WASHINGTON — Heading for a potential showdown with the White House, Senate members have added billions of dollars to a highway bill in excess of the Bush administration’s budget. They insist the money is critical to upgrade the decrepit U.S. transportation system.

Importers and apparel exporters are concerned about the nation’s transportation infrastructure and congested ports and highways, particularly in light of dramatic shifts in global sourcing.

The Senate, expected to vote on the measure this week, voted 72 to 22 last Wednesday to add about $11.5 billion to the $284 billion highway bill, which is intended to improve roads and bridges. Several Republican senators joined with Democrats supporting the increase in the funding, presenting a challenge to Senate leadership, which is controlled by the GOP.

The additional money is a challenge to the administration’s pledge to control fiscal spending and sets the stage for a possible showdown in the House and a potential veto by the President.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, criticized the increase on the Senate floor last week, calling the move “simply unequivocally, unquestionably a budget buster” and adding that the President’s position on maintaining a ceiling on the measure is being “ignored.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) countered that the measure is critical to revitalizing the nation’s roads, railways and buses.

“This bill is not just any type of bill that is coming along,” said Inhofe, according to transcripts in the Congressional Record. “This is a bill that is a matter of life and death.”

Inhofe also maintained that the $11.5 billion in additional funding is inadequate to address the infrastructure problems over the six-year period the measure covers. Congress has failed to approve the bill in the last two years because of disputes over costs, and the program has been operating under extensions. The sixth extension is set to expire at the end of the month.

For U.S. companies exporting and importing billions of dollars in products a year, the infrastructure issues are raising concerns to a new level.

Peter McGrath, chairman of purchasing for J.C. Penney Purchasing Corp., recently told an audience of apparel manufacturers he is “scared to death” of the aging infrastructure.

This story first appeared in the May 17, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

McGrath, speaking at the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s annual meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., in February, said the insufficient number of ports, aging railroads and lack of truck drivers is alarming.

“The infrastructure in the U.S. is falling apart,” he said.

Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said importers are primarily concerned about congestion in ports but look at the whole host of issues, including railway lines and trucking facilities, as needing improvements.

“The clock is ticking, and there hasn’t been investment [in infrastructure],” Hughes said. “Plus, more and more companies are following the business model of just-in-time shipments. A delay used to be built into shipping times to clear customs, but companies don’t have that flexibility anymore and they can’t afford to miss deliveries to customers.”

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