As the partial federal shutdown neared the one-month mark, Oklahoma’s and New Mexico’s departments of transportation delayed lettings for some highway projects, citing uncertainty over federal funding as a reason for the decision. But there doesn’t appear to be a wave of such delays: Two other DOTs say their lettings have not yet been affected.
Transit agencies, however, are taking a hit. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) says some systems are cutting service, shifting capital funds to operations and tapping reserve funds.
Oklahoma DOT says it is delaying about 45 highway projects totaling $137 million that it planned to include in January and February lettings. It still plans to proceed with bids on $150 million in other projects in those months.
New Mexico DOT has delayed its scheduled January bid letting. A spokesperson said via email on Jan. 8 that factors behind the decision include the recent swearing-in of a new governor and other officials, “which delayed high-level decisions regarding funding options” at that point.
The partial shutdown began Dec. 22 after the second of two stopgap spending bills called continuing resolutions (CRs) lapsed. The shutdown continued at ENR press time. But the Senate set Jan. 24 votes on one bill to end the shutdown and fund President Trump’s border wall, and another opening agencies until Feb. 8 without the wall funds.
Though the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is one of the departments caught in the shutdown, its federal-aid highway program continues to operate because it draws on the Highway Trust Fund.
One concern is centered on the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) initial allotment to states of only $8.2 billion, 68 days’ worth, of the $44.2-billion, full-year obligation limit set under the first CR. It ran from Oct. 1 to Dec. 7.
FHWA on Jan. 8 issued a revised plan that made available the full $45.3-billion 2019 obligation limit set in the current highway-transit authorization, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.
But there is a catch. FHWA also told state DOTs that if Congress passes another part-year CR, that stopgap probably would “significantly reduce the amount of obligation limitation available to each state.” The agency warned, “States should plan accordingly.”
Joung Lee, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials policy director, says, “The practical impact is that [states] really can’t program and commit those dollars beyond, like, today.” Lee adds, “Anything beyond that has the risk of being de-obligated or having to be returned to the Federal Highway Administration.”
Terri Angier, an Oklahoma DOT spokeswoman, told ENR in a Jan. 10 interview that working under the latest FHWA allocation is “a very risky thing.” The January letting “is gone,” Angier says. “Now, if Congress comes back in tomorrow and things are back in order, February could be saved. We don’t want to cry wolf here.”
New Mexico DOT “is currently reviewing options in order to move projects forward to avoid any delay in awarding new construction jobs pending the approval of [an] appropriations bill or a “continuing resolution,” the spokeswoman said.
Utah DOT, however, isn’t altering bidding plans so far, spokesman John Gleason said Jan. 17. He added, “It’s a fluid situation, and our approach may change depending on how long this goes, but as of now we will continue as planned.”
Likewise, the Maryland DOT State Highway Administration has seen “a minimal impact … on road operations and construction activities,” spokesman Charlie Gischlar said on Jan. 19.
Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America’s highway and transportation division, said Jan. 16 that depending on when the shutdown is settled, there probably will be little effect on the highway program, because of its funding source. “There is money in the trust fund,” Deery says.
Portland Cement Association President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Ireland said on Jan. 17, “We haven’t had a shutdown that’s lasted this long. And we’re not really sure what end is in sight.” He adds that the group’s members “are going to get a little more apprehensive” as the shutdown continues.
Transit agencies say the shutdown is hurting them, mainly because most Federal Transit Administration workers were furloughed, including those who approve funding releases and other actions to move projects. APTA told Trump and Capitol Hill leaders Jan. 18 that 36% of its members say the shutdown “is substantially impacting their operations and/or capital programs.”
For example, APTA notes the Washington [D.C.] Metropolitan Area Transit Authority estimates it is losing $400,000 per weekday in fares and parking fees.