Construction officials in Washington have circled and underlined Sept. 30 on their calendars because it’s the expiration date for several measures that are critically important to the industry. The list includes surface transportation reauthorization, appropriations and a bill funding Federal Aviation Administration programs. Congress returned on Sept. 8 from its August recess, leaving little time before slamming into those deadlines. That makes short-term extensions nearly certain, giving lawmakers time to hammer out longer-term bills.
Of measures facing Sept. 30 deadlines, the top construction priority is a successor to the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users. All sides agree that highway and transit programs covered by SAFETEA-LU should be continued; they don’t agree on how long the new bill should extend. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) strongly backs a six-year, $500-billion measure that has cleared subcommittee. In the Senate, three committees have approved pieces of an 18-month SAFETEA-LU extension. Industry groups prefer a multiyear solution, but with the clock running out, a stopgap is virtually assured.
David Bauer, American Road and Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for government affairs, says, “I can see no way in which a bill gets done by September 30th. So they’re going to have to do some type of an extension, although the duration of it is anything but guaranteed at this stage.”
Complicating the picture is SAFETEA-LU’s rescission of $8.7 billion in unobligated highway authority, effective on Sept. 30. State agencies and industry want Congress to block the cut. There also is uncertainty about how long the Highway Trust Fund can go without another revenue injection beyond the $7 billion shifted to the fund’s weakened highway account in August.
Fiscal 2010 appropriations also are key measures for the industry. “From an A/E, construction perspective, that’s jobs and that’s projects,” says Brian Pallasch, American Society of Civil Engineers’ managing director for government relations and infrastructure initiatives. The House has finished all 12 of the annual spending bills. The Senate has completed four and is looking to make more headway in September. The schedule is up to Senate leadership, but the bill funding the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments is likely to move to the floor next, with Interior-Environment and Commerce-Justice-State department bills “also in the mix,” a Senate staffer says. Senate appropriators also aim to begin conferences with their House counterparts in mid-September on final versions of FY10 bills that both chambers have approved, says the aide.
|Surface transportation reauthorization||Current law SAFETEA-LU expires Sept. 30. Senate committees approved 18-month extension. House subcommittee cleared six-year, $500-billion bill.|
|Highway Trust Fund “fix”||$7-billion infusion enacted Aug. 7. More money may be needed after Sept. 30.|
|Aviation reauthorization||Stopgap expires Sept. 30. House passed three-year bill May 21. Senate committee cleared two-year bill July 21. Airport grant funding same in both bills. House also hikes passenger facility charge limit.|
|FY 2010 appropriations||Fiscal year starts Oct. 1. As of Sept. 8, House approved all 12 bills funding various agencies. Senate passed four spending bills.|
|Water infrastructure||House passed $19.8-billion, five-year bill March 12. On May 14, Senate committee cleared $34.7-billion, five-year bill, which also includes funds for drinking-water program.|
|Climate change||House passed cap-and-trade bill June 26. Senate bill introduction delayed until “later in September.”|
|Health care||Three House committees cleared parts of to-be-assembled package. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus reportedly has draft plan.|
|SOURCES: CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEES, CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, WHITE HOUSE, ENR|
The Associated General Contractors has been pushing to see American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds turned into construction projects as soon as possible, says Jeffrey D. Shoaf, senior executive director for government affairs. After that, he says, AGC is seeking “a strong 2010 on the appropriations side for the $100-plus billion that [federal agencies] spend on construction.”
Also on the Capitol Hill agenda are health-care and climate-change bills, but quick action on those isn’t likely. In the Senate, the pace of climate-change legislation is slower than some had hoped. Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) say their goal is to introduce their climate-change measure “later in September.”
That could free legislative time for construction-focused bills. Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies’ vice president for government affairs, sees an opportunity for Senate floor action soon on reauthorizing state revolving funds for wastewater-treatment and drinking-water projects. “I think the intention is to try to get a vote sometime before the end of this month,” he says.
If the economy continues to struggle, Hall hopes Congress will move on SAFETEA-LU reauthorization. “It would be a wonderful stimulus bill,” he says. “And if they can couple that with a good, multi-year water bill and an FAA bill...Congress and the administration will have done a great deal to stimulate the economy.”