Inhofe postponed conference meeting slated for July 13. (Photo courtesy of Office of Sen. James Inhofe)

As federal transportation programs face another funding cutoff, uncertainty is clouding prospects for a long-term bill. House and Senate negotiators have struggled for weeks to work out a multiyear successor to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. The conference hit a bump July 12 when a meeting scheduled for the next day was postponed.

The Senate side wanted House conferees to make a funding offer, but they apparently weren’t ready. The conference Chairman, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), called off the session until the House had time to come up with a proposal, says Will Hart, spokesman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Inhofe chairs.

Lawmakers are wrestling with narrowing the gap between the $318-billion Senate bill and the $284-billion House version. Republicans also are wary about reaction from the White House, which opposes the Senate and House numbers.

The postponement came amid reports and rumors that House GOP leaders had floated a new funding proposal to the Senate, though perhaps informally. It was said to be about $295 billion, or $11 billion higher than the bill the House approved in April.
Catherine Connor, a Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. senior vice president, says it’s unclear how detailed the House proposal is. “Clearly these numbers are on a piece of paper somewhere,” Connor says, but adds, “No one seems to know whether the White House has bought into these numbers.” Aides to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) didn’t return calls. If there is a House proposal, it would be the first funding movement by either side.

American Highway Users Alliance President Gregory Cohen thinks the White House may have objected to the House feeler. Passing a multi-year bill this year is “becoming less and less likely,” Cohen says. “I hope I’m wrong about that. We want the bill done.” Proposals “may be morphing,” says American Road & Transportation Builders Association Vice President David Bauer. “Things are very fluid.”

A shutdown of federal transportation agencies again is looming. Since TEA-21 expired Sept. 30, a series of extensions has kept funds flowing. The fourth, and latest, in that series lapses July 31. But the real deadline is July 23, when Congress begins a six-week recess. Few believe lawmakers will fail to pass another stopgap, but there’s almost no chance of a deal on a long-term bill before the break.