With highway funding authority set to expire April 30 and little Capitol Hill progress on a multi-year transportation bill, another short extension is all but inevitable, industry and congressional sources say.
The House and Senate have approved differing versions of a six-year successor to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, but a conference committee to work out those differences has not yet begun. TEA-21 expired last Sept. 30 and the federal highway and transit programs have been operating since then under two extensions. The second extension runs out April 30. If no new bill is enacted by then, the Federal Highway Administration would be forced into a virtually total shutdown.
Jim Berard, spokesman for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Democrats, says that if lawmakers don't finish the conference, "There'll have to be another extension."
Jay Hansen, vice president for government affairs with the National Asphalt Pavement Association, says that congressional leaders will decide during the week of April 26 how long the extension will be. "The House is talking about a 60-day extension and the Senate, a one-month extension," he says.
Berard notes that a bill the House passed several months ago to extend the transportation programs through June 30 is still open for Senate approval, should lawmakers there choose to accept it,
But Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors' highway and transportation division, says that the Senate favors a extension shorter than 60 days and "wants to keep the pressure on to get a [six-year] bill done."
There is a wide gap between the $318-billion version the Senate approved in February and the $284-billion bill the House passed on April 2. The Bush administration thinks both are too expensive and supports a $256-billion alternative.
Deery says that industry is "still pushing for a six-year bill funded at the Senate number...and we're staying pretty solid on that." He adds that a short extension is "not the most desirable thing, but we certainly don't want the program to shut down." He adds, "We would like to see them get down to negotiating here...and we wouldn't like to see a long-term extension by any means."
NAPA's Hansen says observers feel a six-year measure needs to pass during the post-April 30 extension's period or else it could fall prey to heightened politics that will accompany the party conventions this summer, with the peak of the campaign season to follow. He says the near term "will be probably the last opportunity to pass a six-year bill."