The fifth extension of the federal highway program in nearly a year expired Sept. 24 with no further continuing legislation in place, putting a halt to new road funding obligations until Congress approves another continuation. But Dept. of Transportation officials say that the Federal Highway Administration won't be forced to halt operations, as it would have if the previous four stopgap bills had lapsed without a further extension.

Federal Highway Administrator Mary E. Peters told the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials annual meeting Sept. 19 that staffers at her agency had determined that the lapsing fifth extension wouldn't require the agency to lay off virtually all of its workers on Sept. 24.

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Federal transit and highway safety programs are authorized through Sept. 30.

U.S. DOT spokesman Brian Turmail said Sept. 24 that with only a few days remaining in fiscal 2004 most states have committed road-building funding. He adds that while FHWA won't be able to provide additional highway obligations to states without further action by Congress, the absence of a sixth extension isn't expected to have other effects on the agency's operations.

Still, FHWA cannot issue new funding obligations to states past Sept. 24, until Congress passes some sort of legislation to keep the new money flowing. That could take the form of another stopgap measure just for FHWA, or an overall continuing resolution to keep all non-defense agencies operating when the federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

As of Sept. 26, only one of the 13 appropriations bills for fiscal 2005 had been enacted, the one covering the Dept. of Defense. Although Congress is making progress on some of the other 12 spending measures, some sort of catch-all "continuing resolution" will be necessary if none of the 12 are signed into law by Oct. 1.
The highway program has had to run under its own series of continuations since Sept. 30, 2003, when the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century ran out. Congress has been unable to pass a new, multi-year successor to TEA-21, because of protracted squabbling among the House, Senate and White House over that long-term bill's funding level.

DOT spokesman Turmail adds, "Our concern continues to be that without a six-year surface transportation bill it is difficult for states to do the kind of long-term planning they need to, especially when it comes to significant transportation projects."
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