Sen. Barrasso seeks to protect rural interests in highway bill

Posted 7/30/19

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., appeared to be having fun walking the parade route with his wife Bobbi in Powell Saturday. He was smiling like he was on the ballot in November.

As Barrasso moved …

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Sen. Barrasso seeks to protect rural interests in highway bill

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U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., appeared to be having fun walking the parade route with his wife Bobbi in Powell Saturday. He was smiling like he was on the ballot in November.

As Barrasso moved north on Bent Street, people shouted praises. “You’re doing a great job,” said one man planted in a lawn chair with yellow and orange woven straps. “We love you senator,” said a woman as he marched past Plaza Diane.

The parade slowed, waiting behind Barrasso’s red Jeep decorated with American flags while he stopped to meet families perched in front of downtown businesses, many armed with phones ready for photos.

Maybe it was the overcast morning, offering a break from the blazing sun of late. Maybe the senator was still sugar rushing from a large, soft cinnamon roll handed to him just before the sirens sounded to signal the start of the annual Park County Fair parade. He seemed to relish being surrounded by residents in this predominately red town.

Barrasso has a little more than five years before he faces re-election; he can relax into the work. Yet, the same can’t be said of many of his co-workers. As the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Barrasso works alongside three Democratic presidential candidates: Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

In a recent bill introduced by Barrasso — intended to drive innovation to help solve predator/human conflicts — he worked alongside minority ranking member Thomas Carper, D-Del., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Booker.

“I’m sent by the people to represent Wyoming and you have to work with the people other states send,” Barrasso said. “You try to find common ground.”

The committee members tackled water infrastructure in 2018. They put in some long hours and it passed out of committee unanimously, “even Bernie Sanders,” Barrasso said.

Then the bill passed through the Senate 99-1, with 17 projects in Wyoming included. Proud of the work accomplished, Barrasso headed to the signing ceremony at the White House with a bipartisan group. The president talked about the legislation for 15 minutes. But instead of noting the cooperation from both sides of the aisle leading to the signing of an important infrastructure bill, Barrasso said the questions from the press were about immigration.

“There was no coverage of the infrastructure bill,” he said. “We were there, the four of us, bipartisan. It made news in Wyoming because of the projects, but there was no national coverage of the cooperation of the two parties getting things done in a positive way.”

Today (Tuesday) begins the mark-up of major highway infrastructure legislation. Barrasso is trying to ensure rural areas get their fair share of money for maintenance and improvements.

“The damage done to the roads in Wyoming is for the most part, due to national commerce,” he said while peeling layers from his roll. “There’s a federal responsibility.”

Every big truck crossing the state with full loads has the same impact on roads as 4,000 cars, he claimed. Barrasso chaired the Wyoming Legislature’s transportation committee while serving as a state senator and feels comfortable in his transition to similar issues on a national level. A large part of his focus on the bill will be the needs of rural America.

“We have to deal with the needs of rural America different than the needs of urban America. It can’t be one size fits all,” he said.

The competition for federal funds is fierce. Western states with large expanses and small populations struggle to afford roads. According to the Urban Institute — a Washington D.C.-based think tank that carries out economic and social policy research — highways and roads are the sixth-largest source of direct general spending at the state and local level, and have been since 1996. The federal government only chips in about 27 percent of the costs. That forces legislators to look deep for ideas to increase revenue.

Barrasso is against toll roads as a means to increase revenue. “It works in New York. It works in California. But it’s not for Wyoming,” he said.

He believes the highway infrastructure bill will pass out of committee this week. “I know the president wants to get this done and signed.”

But Barrasso won’t hold his breath that the bill and bipartisan cooperation it took to get it done will make the news. “Other things make more noise,” he said.

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