Photo Courtesy of AP Wideworld
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hopes to pass a two-year highway-funding bill which includes provisions to increase domestic oil and gas drilling.
Just two days before a threatened March 31 shutdown of highway programs, Congress approved yet another stopgap that will keep surface-transportation funds moving, but only through June 30. While construction and state transportation officials were relieved that the bill, which President Obama signed on March 30, averted a funding cutoff, they were unhappy that Congress still couldn't approve a long-term highway-transit measure.

The 90-day stopgap is the ninth since Sept. 30, 2009, when the last multiyear authorization—the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users—lapsed. Despite Senate progress and a House pledge to keep at it, enacting the long-sought, long-term bill by July looks like a long shot.

Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president for government affairs, says, "We're very disappointed that we weren't able to pass a multiyear bill." Connor says industry officials would have preferred an extension shorter than three months, to put more pressure on lawmakers to produce a long-term measure. On the other hand, she adds, "We don't want a series of choppy extensions. The only thing worse than a 90-day extension is a 40-day extension, then another 40-day extension, then another."

As the March 31 deadline approached, Democrats kept urging House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to have his chamber pass a $109-billion, two-year bill that the Senate approved on March 14. Construction industry officials supported the two-year Senate measure. However, Boehner rejected the idea, criticizing some of the Senate bill's revenue-raising provisions as being "gimmicks."

For weeks, the Speaker of the House has been unable to get his chamber to clear a GOP-proposed five-year, $260-billion highway-transit measure. Boehner says he will still pursue that long-term measure but plans to expand it to include provisions that would increase domestic oil and gas drilling.

On March 29, Boehner told reporters that Republicans were putting "the final touches on that bill" and said it would be ready in mid-April after a two-week congressional recess. "We will move quickly to move the highway bill ... with our energy initiatives and ship it over to the United States Senate," he said.

Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, says, "I'm still hopeful and optimistic that the House will come up with 218 votes for a bill."

Cohen adds, "The longer and longer that [House Republican leaders] appear to be unable to move forward, the worse they look." As June 30 draws nearer, Boehner and his team will be "working their members pretty hard" to get the needed votes, Cohen says.

Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, says, "The short-term extensions make it very difficult to plan for managing your employees, for buying equipment, for making long-term purchases. … For the [state] DOTs, how do they put out multi-year projects without any kind of clarity on the long-term funding picture?"

Any further stopgaps running into 2013 "aren't going to cut it," Hansen says, because the Highway Trust Fund's highway account is projected to turn negative sometime next fall. "This is the proverbial train wreck coming," he says.

Hansen notes that transportation construction groups have organized a May 30-31 "fly in" to Washington, where their members will push for a multiyear bill.

"If they don't get this bill moving by the end of May and [industry members] know it, they're going to be mad," Hansen notes.