With the latest short-term surface transportation bill set to expire on Dec. 18, another extension is a certainty. But how long the next stopgap measure will be is by no means clear, making things difficult for state transportation agencies and recession-battered construction firms that pursue states’ federally funded highway contracts.

Boxer asks for U.S. DOT help in resolving ‘standoff’ with House over new funding bill.
Boxer asks for U.S. DOT help in resolving ‘standoff’ with House over new funding bill.

Leaders of three Senate committees said on Nov. 17 they want a six-month extension. One of those senators, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), has urged top U.S. Dept. of Transportation officials to help end what she terms a “standoff” with the House over the span of a new bill.

There is no definitive reaction yet from key House members to the six-month proposal. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is waiting to see details of the Senate proposal and “has not laid down any markers” on an extension of any specific duration, says committee spokesman Jim Berard. He says there has been House and Senate staff “contact” on the six-month idea, but adds, “I don’t know whether it has risen to the level of negotiation.”

Oberstar is pushing his six-year, $500-billion highway-transit-rail bill, which cleared subcommittee on June 24 but now is stalled. “Oberstar has been consistent in saying he doesn’t want any extensions to be seen as a substitute for, or a reason not to make progress on, the six-year authorization,” says Berard.

At a Nov. 18 highway-issues briefing of her committee, Boxer called a six-month bill “the best solution.” She said the not-yet-introduced bill would undo an $8.7-billion rescission in highway contract authority that took effect on Sept. 30, bringing funding back to 2009’s level. She asked DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari and Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz, who spoke at the briefing, for assistance, saying, “We need your help now on this standoff.” Porcari repeated Obama administration support for an 18-month extension but said a six-month extension is better than a 30-day bill.

First, however, a six-month bill must get through the Senate, where Boxer says some Republicans are blocking quick approval. Boxer, along with the environment panel’s ranking Republican, James Inhofe (Okla.), and top banking, commerce and finance committee members urged Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to seek a cloture vote.

The two stopgaps enacted since Sept. 30 reflect the $8.7-billion rescission. Kienitz says as a result, states’ new highway authority has been trimmed about 30% from fiscal 2009 levels, though some states won’t feel the cut right away because they can carry over unused authority from earlier years.