UPDATED 3/9 After four stopgap spending bills and more than four months into fiscal year 2024, Congress finally has approved–and President Joe Biden has signed– the first of two appropriations measures to keep government agencies open, including their construction and infrastructure programs, through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. 

Construction and transportation industry groups see much to like in the first of the two legislative packages, which includes a mix of generally small increases and cuts for infrastructure programs at such key construction agencies as the Depts. of Transportation, Energy, Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development along with the Environmental Protection Agency, military construction and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works program. The total for the measure is estimated at $432.9 billion.

Avoiding a Continuing Resolution

Appropriators released the text of Package 1 on March 3 and the House approved the spending package Mar. 6 in a 339-85 vote. Final congressional approval came on March 8, when the Senate cleared it on a 75-22 vote. Biden signed the measure the following day.

Industry officials are pleased and relieved to see Congress pass the bill instead of falling back on a perhaps year-long continuing resolution, or CR.

Michele Stanley, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association executive vice president and chief advocacy officer, said in a March 5 interview, “I’m happy to see that they have come to an agreement and that something is going to finally pass.”

Stanley said, "The fact that it's March and we're still working on FY24—it's hard for a lot of businesses, big and small, to be able to plan for the year. So the fact that something is actually going to pass, I think, is a very positive thing."

What's more, Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies executive vice president, said in an interview, "We're avoiding a year-long CR," and for the key highway and transit programs, a full year of contract authority would be released to states. For the agencies included in the package, Hall says, "It's a decent outcome." 

Hall said that given the turmoil in the House over the Speakership, both chambers' thin majorities and the looming elections, "Overall, I think it's probably about as good as we could expect."

The Associated General Contractors of America points out that stopgap spending bills pose a particular problem for construction companies.

In a March 5 letter to congressional leaders, Jimmy Christianson, AGC vice president-government relations, noted that CRs prohibit federal construction agencies from launching new project or program starts while the stopgaps are in effect. He said that to build projects, agencies and the construction industry "require full-year appropriations bills."

Staying True to the IIJA

Among the bill's allocations, many in industry are focusing on DOT accounts. Infrastructure advocates were particularly happy to see that the bill was faithful to the highway and transit obligation limits set in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The dollars come from the Highway Trust Fund.

The bill sets the highway "ob limit" at $60.1 billion, up $1.3 billion, or 2.2%, from 2023. It sets the transit limit at just under $14 billion, up 2.6% from 2023. 

Susan Howard, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials director of policy and government relations, said in an interview, "Overall, the message looks like the appropriators are following through on the intent of the IIJA and then making their own tweaks [in] what's under their jurisdiction." 

But Howard also notes that the lawmakers made some cuts in the DOT category. For example, they sliced the RAISE discretionary grant program by $455 million, or 57%, to a total of $345 million. RAISE stands for Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity. The program, launched in 2009, was formerly named TIGER and later BUILD.

The American Public Transportation Association said it strongly supports the bill, noting that it includes $14 billion for the transit obligation limit, the mark set in the IIJA.

APTA said that with the combination of advanced appropriations contained in the IIJA and the new appropriations in the latest spending package transit is getting a total of $20.9 billion, down 2% from fiscal 2023's enacted levels.

Corps Civil Works Gets a Boost

One infrastructure program that fares relatively well in the new package is the Corps of Engineers' civil works. The bill boosts that account by 4%, year over year, to $8.7 billion. 

Within that total, the Corps' construction account would receive $1.85 billion, up 2% from the enacted FY 2003 level. The agency's operation and maintenance account would rise 9%, to $5.53 billion.

Waterways interests were thrilled at the numbers for Corps river locks and dams projects.

"We are ecstatic," said Tracy Zea, Waterways Council Inc. president and chief executive officer. 

Zea says the new package includes $456 million for inland waterways construction, which will fund the completion of three major projects: Chickamauga Lock replacement on the Tennessee River , the Lower Monongahela River locks and dam in western Pennsylvania and the Three Rivers navigation and environmental project where the Arkansas, Mississippi and White rivers meet. "So for us, this bill is massive," Zea said in an interview.

EPA Water Infrastructure Spared Deep Cuts

For the EPA, the agency's main water infrastructure account was trimmed by only 1%, to $4.48 billion. 

Within that total the bedrock Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) were frozen at their 2023 levels of $1.6 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively. 

A water thread running through the new spending package is its large number of "congressionally directed spending" and "community project funding" items, or earmarks.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies is pleased to see that water programs "have been spared deep cuts," including the SRFs, says Kristina Surfus, managing director for government affairs. 

But Surfus adds, "While we are glad to see many important local water projects supported [as] Congressionally Directed Projects, we are deeply concerned that those earmarks are being funded with SRF dollars." 

She says, "That situation is not sustainable for the SRFs once the [IIJA] supplements end in FY 26."

ACEC's Hall says one EPA program that was hit hard is Superfund.

The hazardous-materials cleanup account was slashed by $745 million, or 58%.

Among other major programs, military construction was reduced by $325 million, or 2%. VA major construction was cut by $487 million, or 34%.

Lawmakers now face another deadline. Still ahead is action on the other spending package, encompassing the remaining federal agencies, including funding for such construction programs as General Services Administration federal buildings and State Dept. embassy construction. That bill faces a March 22 deadline.

Story updated on 3/9/2024 to include Senate passage and Biden's signing of the legislation.