Congress has approved legislation that ends a short lapse in surface transportation funding and extends federal highway and transit program authorizations—but only through Oct. 31.
President Joe Biden signed the stopgap on Oct. 2, reauthorizing those key transportation programs for 30 days and bringing back to their jobs more than 3,000 U.S. Dept. of Transportation workers who had been furloughed.
But a top state transportation official says the new stopgap doesn't provide new federal highway funding to the states for about two weeks.
The brief extension was the House and Senate fallback move after House lawmakers failed to pass a pending, wide-ranging $1-trillion infrastructure package that included a five-year surface transportation reauthorization.
Transportation and construction groups were pleased that the funding cutoff wasn’t protracted. But they were unhappy about facing another postponement of the big infrastructure package, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA. That bill cleared the Senate on Aug. 10 but action in the House was stalled.
The reason for the delay is an intra-party fight among House Democrats over the linkage between the infrastructure package and Biden's $3.5-trillion Build Back Better framework, which focuses mostly on social policy matters, such as education, health care and climate change.
Moderate Democrats favor a separate vote on the IIJA first. Progressive Democrats, for whom the social policy framework is the top priority, want the two bills to move basically in tandem.
Biden told reporters on Oct. 2, "I'm a realist....I know how legislation gets done." He added, "There is no reason why both these bills couldn't pass independently except that there are not the votes to do it that way. It's a simple proposition."
Unlike the rest of the infrastructure package, the highway and transit reauthorization provisions faced a hard deadline of midnight Sept. 30. Thus, highway and transit funding was halted when there was no vote on the bigger package.
Another result was the Oct. 1 furlough of more than 3,000 employees at U.S. DOT.
Construction and transportation organizations breathed a muted sigh of relief that the extension passed. But they were not at all pleased to see the waiting game continue over the infrastructure package.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had said in August that the chamber would vote on the infrastructure bill on Sept. 27; she later moved the date to Sept. 30 and then pulled the measure from the floor without a vote, presumably because it was unlikely to pass.
NAPA, AGC Reactions
Audrey Copeland, National Asphalt Pavement Association president and chief executive officer, was disappointed that the House didn't approve the IIJA. Copeland said that “by putting forth yet another short-term extension, the House has moved the goal post once again.”
She said, “The country cannot afford another short-term extension." Copeland added, “We have been waiting far too long.”
The previous surface transportation measure was itself an extension of the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman with the Associated General Contractors of America, said via email that Biden "had a unique opportunity to help get a measure that received widespread bipartisan support in the Senate [the IIJA] past the finish line last week."
Turmail said, "Instead, by opting to link the measure to the hyper-partisan so-called 'social infrastructure' measure, he...signaled that it is OK to hold popular pieces of legislation that will improve our economy and quality of life hostage to the whims of partisan politics."
AASHTO: 2-Week Funding Delay
Jim Tymon, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director, said that his group appreciated that the stopgap had been approved. But he added in a statement that “short-term extensions are not a suitable way to govern.”
Tymon also said the new stopgap doesn’t provide any new funding for state DOTs until Oct. 15, “leaving them without support from their federal partners for weeks while they continue the work of moving people and goods through our communities.”
In explaining why states will have to wait until Oct. 15 for new funds, an AASHTO spokesperson says that "under normal circumstances" states get their annual contract authority from the Federal Highway Administration on Oct. 1.
The AASHTO official said in an email response to ENR, "The reason for the Oct. 15 date seems to be based on an expectation (when the extension was drafted) that the IIJA was pretty close to the finish line, and it would be administratively cleaner not to have to claw back funds if the IIJA passed before Oct. 15.
The spokesperson adds that "this is problematic for state DOTs as this is the funding authority they rely on, and they now have to wait an additional two weeks to receive it. And when they get it on Oct. 15, if things are still up in the air for passage of the IIJA, that adds to more uncertainty."
Story updated on Oct. 5 with additional information from AASHTO about highway funding delay.