House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) says he is aiming to have a surface-transportation bill written in March and hold a vote of his panel on the measure in April.

Speaking to reporters after addressing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials winter meeting on Feb. 26, DeFazio said, “I hope to have a bill drafted in March and a markup in April.”

Lawmakers must act by Sept. 30, when the current authorization measure, the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, lapses. The congressional schedule also will be truncated this fall because of the run-up to the Nov. 3 elections.

Long-term bill, or extension?

Given that time squeeze and recent history, a stopgap to continue highway and transit programs temporarily is a definite possibility. But DeFazio says, “I would hope that we can do a [long-term] policy [bill] and not just an extension. That’s my goal.”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told the AASHTO meeting, "We need a multi-year highway infrastructure bill."

He recalled that before the FAST Act passed, short-term extensions led to states' delaying and considering cancelling more than $1 billion in projects.

In July, Barrasso's committee unanimously cleared a $287-billion, five-year highway reauthorization and he said he's "pushing" for the Senate to take the measure up on the floor.

The highway and transit legislation—a top priority for engineering and construction groups—was a major topic at the AASHTO meeting, held in Washington, D.C.

In interviews with ENR, state department of transportation leaders had varied views about whether Congress will be able to produce a multi-year highway-transit bill by the Sept. 30 deadline, or fall back on an extension.

Some state DOT officials point to signs of progress, especially the Senate committee's passage of the five-year bill. That legislation would be the major component of that chamber's still-incomplete surface transportation package.

DeFazio said in his remarks that the House Democrats' plan calls for $329 billion for highways, and that 90% of that would be distributed among states by formula. He called on the state DOT officials to press for raising the needed revenue.

Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri DOT, says he also was heartened by bipartisan support in Congress last year to cancel a $7.6-billion rescission of highway funds that was slated to take effect July 1. That repeal was a big win for state DOTs.

“Everyone told us a year ago that couldn’t happen, that wasn’t going to happen,” says McKenna, who also is AASHTO's current president.  “And yet when we really got focused on it and members of Congress understood what the impacts were around the country, they got focused on it, too. And they got the job done.”

Looking ahead, he adds, “Frankly, until midnight on September 30, I’m going to be saying that [long-term] reauthorization is exactly what needs to be done and that’s what we ought to be pushing for.”

William Panos, North Dakota DOT director, is one of the most bullish about a deal on a multi-year surface transportation bill this year. Panos says, "We are confident that both sides of the Congress, and the people that are involved, are going to be able to work out a bill that is going to be beneficial to all the states.” He adds, “We’re pretty encouraged by…the progress that they’ve made so far.”

The North Carolina DOT, on the other hand, thinks an extension is the likely outcome by Sept. 30, and is planning accordingly, says Burt Tasaico, director of strategic initiatives and program support.

Because of the lengthy time it takes to construct projects, Tasaico says, “You have to assume a revenue stream and we have to be realistic, because if you make the wrong assumption, you have to adjust the portfolio of projects.”

Still, he adds, “Long-term, we do think that Congress will come up with a reauthorization bill that will have additional funding, over what we have in the FAST Act. But for the near future, I don’t see that necessarily happening,” By "near future," he says he means by Sept. 30.

After hearing DeFazio, Barrasso and other senior lawmakers discuss the transportation bill's status,  Omer Osman, acting secretary of the Illinois DOT,  says, "It’s good to hear that they are focusing on this, that they are pushing to get us to stability—And to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund."

Osman says, "Is it going to be done by October? We are hopeful."

Craig Thompson, secretary of the Wisconsin DOT, says that getting a long-term bill enacted by Oct. 1 is “somewhat of a long shot, at this point.” Thompson says, “It’s going to be a heavy lift,” and adds, “But we’re hopeful.”

The Trump administration has weighed in with a proposed $810-billion,10-year surface-transportation plan and the U.S. DOT has drafted detailed legislative language to flesh out that proposal. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao told the AASHTO gathering that the draft legislation is under review by the Office of Management and Budget.

Story changed on 2/27/20 to add comments from Senator Barrasso.