President Trump has signed into law a stopgap spending bill that averts a looming shutdown of many federal agencies and—in a particular win for infrastructure advocates—also extends federal highway and transit programs for a full fiscal year.

Final congressional approval of the continuing resolution, or CR, came in the evening of Sept. 30, when the Senate passed it on a 84-10 vote.

Trump signed the legislation early on Oct. 1, to keep agencies open. The CR will continue appropriations through Dec. 11, a 72-day period.

Construction industry executives are no doubt relieved that agencies will remain open, including their construction programs, government-wide.

But the legislation's construction highlight is the one-year extension of surface transportation programs. The current authorization law, the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act, also was scheduled to lapse at midnight Sept. 30.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement, “A full one-year extension of highway funding provides states and communities the certainty required to plan for critical road and bridge projects.”

Trust Fund infusion

Another key element of the package is a provision to prop up the troubled Highway Trust Fund via a $13.6-billion infusion from the general fund. Of that amount, the trust fund’s highway account would get $10.4 billion and its transit account would receive $3.2 billion.

Dean Franks, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for congressional relations, said in an interview that the funding transfer should put “enough money in the trust fund to get them through the full year.”

Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president for advocacy, said via email. “The CR is good for the construction industry because it includes the one-year extension of the FAST Act surface transportation programs and a bailout of the Highway Trust Fund."

Jim Tymon, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director, said in a statement, "We are pleased that Congress approved the $13.6-billion transfer to the Highway Trust Fund and that state will have certainty for planning their 2021 programs, knowing that current surface transportation legislation remains in place for another year."

Obligation authority and contract authority

There is a technical wrinkle, however. The full-year extension applies to federal highway contract authority. But the underlying CR limits highway obligation authority—the amount of actual spending—to a 72-day, pro-rated share of a full year’s funding.

Thus, Hansen says, “This means there will be a lot of work to do to get a full-year [appropriations] bill through the Congress in a lame duck session.”

Other industry officials, however, don't seem particularly concerned about having only 72 days of obligation authority.

Brian Turmail, an Associated General Contractors of America spokesman, said via email, “This is not unlike any other time when an authorization bill has been in place, and Congress has passed CRs instead of [full-year] appropriations bills.”

Turmail adds that the same situation has “happened many times” since 2015, when the FAST Act became law. He expects states to continue to plan and carry out projects.

ARTBA’s Franks says, “If the extension had only gone until December 11, and they only transferred a couple of billion dollars to the trust fund, states would definitely be scaling back projects.”

AGC's Turmail agrees. He says, “The real uncertainty would have come if Congress was pursuing a 72-day extension of the FAST Act and a 72-day CR. A one-year extension is still a victory.”

Looking down the road

Still, the extension is far from the multi-year highway and transit legislation that construction and transportation groups have long been pushing for.

AASHTO's Tymon notes, "We look forward to working with Congress and committee staff on a reauthorization that will address the challenges facing surface transportation, including the need for a long-term fix for the Highway Trust Fund."

Updated 10/1/2020 9:05 a.m. with enactment of the measure and 9:34 a.m. with AASHTO comment.