With a multi-year transportation bill still stalled on Capitol Hill, Congress has approved, and President Bush signed into law a measure to continue federal highway and transit programs for eight months. The House passed the legislation on Sept. 30 by a 409-8 vote, the Senate approved it without objection later that day and Bush signed it that night.
There are hopes that talks on a six-year transportation bill will go on. But if the stalemate continues past the congressional pre-election recess, expected to begin about Oct. 8, and beyond that, the extension should give state departments of transportation enough certainty to proceed with bid lettings through early spring. But having just eight months of assured federal aid is unlikely to convince states and transit agencies to launch planning and design contracts for major new projects.
Transportation programs have been operating under a series of five short extensions since Sept. 30, 2003, when the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century expired. The new legislation would carry the programs through May 31. It provides $24.5 billion over that period for surface transportation programs, which is eight-twelfths of the 2005 amount provided under the six-year transport bill the House approved in April.
David Bauer, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association's vice president for government relations, says that an eight-month bill is "certainly better news for the overall marketplace than a series of one- or two-month extensions." But he adds, "It's still not as good as a multi-year bill."
For state DOTs, "The extension...keeps the wheels turning for eight more months," says J. Bryan Nicol, the new president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, "but goes nowhere in moving forward to meet the long-term need states now face--needs like relieving congestion, rebuilding Interstates, fixing bridges and bottlenecks and improving transit services. Nicol also is
Bauer notes that the extension also indicates that work will continue on a multi-year successor to TEA-21. "This is something that's not going away. It's going to require continued presence and activism on the part of industry to try and pursue our priorities"
Nicol, who also is commissioner of the Indiana DOT, says, "Just because Congress found it necessary to enact an eight-month extension does not mean they have to wait until the final day of that extension to take action" on a long-term bill.
In the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) didn't back a six-month extension recently proposed by Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Christopher Bond (R-Mo). But Inhofe will support the eight-month bill, says committee spokesman Will Hart. Nevertheless, Hart adds that Inhofe's top priority is still "to get a six-year bill done this year. He expects that bipartisan and bicameral talks will continue and...he hopes that we're able to come to an agreement and be able to pass a six-year bill when we come back in a lame-duck session."
In February, the Senate approved a $318-billion, six-year reauthorization bill. In April, the House cleared a $284-billion alternative. In a House-Senate conference to work out differences between those two versions, there were proposals centering around a $300-billion funding level. But no deal had emerged, prompting lawmakers to turn to an extension as the recess neared and funding authority was about to lapse.