With few congressional legislative days remaining before the federal highway and transit authorization law expires on Sept. 30, a major construction coalition is turning to a push for Plan B—a one-year extension for surface transportation programs, at increased funding levels.
The Transportation Construction Coalition, which the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) co-chair, met on Aug. 17 and agreed on three “principal messages,” according to an AGC newsletter.
They are: a one-year extension of the current law, the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act, including a funding hike; revenue provisions to keep the struggling Highway Trust Fund solvent; and money to offset state transportation departments' coronavirus-related downturns in motor-fuels taxes and other revenue that support road building programs.
Brian Turmail, an AGC spokesman, says, “We’re just trying to zero in on what is the most realistic, achievable goal.” He adds that at this point, a one-year bill, to take care of immediate highway and transit needs, “is probably the most realistic solution, even as we continue to lay the groundwork for some kind of longer-term bill."
Jay Hansen, executive vice president for advocacy at coalition member National Asphalt Pavement Association, notes that when Congress returns from its break, lawmakers will have 10 or 11 legislative days before the FAST Act expires.
"There’s no way we're going to get a full reauthorization bill” by then, Hansen says. “We’re up against the clock.”
Congress has made some progress to date on a multi-year measure. The House on July 1 approved a $1.5-trillion, five-year comprehensive infrastructure package, which includes $494 billion for surface transportation.
In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee on July 30, 2019 cleared a five-year $287-billion highway bill. But in the months since then, the Senate banking committee, which has jurisdiction over transit, and the commerce committee, which oversees highway safety programss, have yet to move their parts of the overall legislation.
Given that picture, Hansen says, “We have to pivot, and in pivoting, we have to do what’s in the best interests of the construction industry. The best thing for the construction industry and for the state transportation departments is a full-year extension."
Construction and engineering firms and state and local transportation agencies have endured multiple shorter stopgaps after past highway-transit bills lapsed. Officials have said that such paycheck-to-paycheck funding makes it difficult to plan their construction programs.
As for how much the 32-member Transportation Construction Coalition is seeking in the one-year extension, Hansen says the industry likes the House-passed bill's $61 billion for highways for next year. The FAST Act provides about $47 billion for highways in 2020, its final year.
Regarding the trust fund, Hansen says estimates show that an additional $4 billion for the fund's highway account and $1 billion for its transit account would probably provide enough of a "cushion" for 2021. But Hansen adds, "That's just keeping the program flat at current funding levels."
Dave Bauer, ARTBA president and chief executive officer, says early estimates won't reflect the drop-off and partial recovery of gas tax receipts and other revenue that supports transportation programs.
For state transportation departments, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in July estimated their collective revenue shortfall at $37 billion over five years.
Bauer says, "We certainly don't consider an extension a victory." For the industry, he says, a long-term, well-funded bill "has been and always will be our objective."
Bauer adds, "What you're seeing is us trying to take a proactive approach to bolster the market and the construction sector...in whatever manner is available to us in the current environment."