Hopeful Signs, But Tough Path for Highway-Transit Bill
With seven months to go before the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act expires, there have been glimmerings of progress on a long-term successor for that $305-billion highway-transit authorization. But lawmakers will be hard-pressed to pass a final new measure by the Sept. 30 deadline, partly because the legislative session will be shortened by the run-up to the Nov. 3 elections.
State and industry officials are pressing for a new multiyear highway-transit bill, but given the tight window, a short-term extension remains a real possibility.
In the House, one positive sign came from Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), when he told reporters on Feb. 26 he is aiming to have a five-year surface-transportation bill written in March and hold a vote of his panel on the measure in April. DeFazio’s comments came after he addressed the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) winter meeting. The bill is expected to have $329 billion for highways.
The House isn’t as far along as the Senate, where the Environment and Public Works Committee last July 30 unanimously cleared a five-year, $287-billion highway authorization bill. It is poised to be the highway title of a larger package.
Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told AASHTO meeting attendees that he is “pushing” for the Senate to take up that measure on the floor. Barrasso favors a long-term bill over an extension. He recalled that stopgaps before the FAST Act was passed led to states’ delaying and considering cancelling more than $1 billion in projects.
The Senate banking committee also is gearing up, holding a Feb. 25 hearing on what would be the transit title of a Senate transportation package. Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) didn’t say when he would unveil the transit legislation. But he said, “We we want to get this right. And we want to get it done.”
The Trump administration has proposed an $810-billion,10-year surface-transportation plan. The U.S. DOT has drafted detailed legislative language to flesh out that proposal. Secretary Elaine Chao told AASHTO attendees that the draft legislation is under review by the Office of Management and Budget.
In interviews with ENR, leaders of state departments of transportation who gathered in Washington, D.C., for the AASHTO meeting had varied views about whether Congress will be able to produce a multiyear bill by the Sept. 30 deadline, or fall back on an extension.
After listening to Barrasso, DeFazio and other lawmakers, Omer Osman, acting secretary of the Illinois DOT, told ENR, “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 adds, “Is it going to be done by October? We are hopeful.”
William Panos, North Dakota DOT director, is bullish about the chances for a multiyear bill. “We are confident,” Panos says, “that both sides of 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.”
As he assesses the outlook for a long-term bill, Patrick McKenna, Missouri DOT director, takes heart from last year’s successful drive to get Congress to cancel a $7.6-billion rescission in highway funds slated to happen July 1, 2020. That bipartisan 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. “And yet when we really got focused on it and members of Congress understood what the impacts were … they got focused on it, too. And they got the job done.” He adds, “Frankly, until midnight on September 30, I’m going to be saying that [multiyear] reauthorization is exactly what needs to be done and that’s what we ought to be pushing for.”
North Carolina DOT thinks an extension is the likely outcome by Sept. 30 and has been 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.”
He says, “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.” He adds, “But for the near future, I don’t see that necessarily happening.”
Craig Thompson, Wisconsin DOT secretary, says that getting a long-term bill enacted by Oct. 1 is “somewhat of a long shot at this point. It’s going to be a heavy lift. But we’re hopeful.”