Spending bills for the fiscal year starting on Oct. 1 are only inching along on Capitol Hill, making a stopgap “continuing resolution” or an omnibus appropriations package increasingly likely. If that happens, it will mean continued headaches for states and contractors trying to plan for the next construction season—let alone beyond then.

As of July 13, none of the 12 appropriations bills for fiscal 2011 even had cleared committee in the House or Senate, although the Senate panel had scheduled July 15 votes on three of the measures. Five spending bills had moved through House subcommittees and further subcommittee action was slated.

Last year, by July 13, the House had passed seven of the FY 2010 spending bills, and two others had gone through committee. The Senate by that date had approved two bills, and its appropriations committee had cleared seven others. One reason for this year’s snail’s pace is that House appropriators have been in a partisan fight over a supplemental spending bill to fund the Afghanistan war and other programs. The House finally passed that bill on July 1. The measure now must be reconciled with the Senate-approved version.

Given the lack of progress on 2011 appropriations, industry officials say a stopgap is likely around Oct. 1. After that, says Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association vice president for government affairs, “I think we are headed for a massive omnibus” in a lame-duck session. She adds, “I don’t think there’s any enthusiasm to take action on the majority of the FY11 spending bills before the election.”

Among the bills cleared by a House subcommittee is the one for transportation funding. It may provide hints of eventual numbers for road, rail, airport and transit programs.

Industry officials like the bill’s $4-billion boost in the highway obligation limit. Jay Hansen, the National Asphalt Pavement Association’s vice president for government affairs, says it’s unclear whether that will be the final spending level. “We’ll obviously fight for it,” he says. “It’s good for the market.” However, Hansen notes, “It’s going to run the [Highway] Trust Fund dry quicker than it would [have] otherwise.”

Whitted is encouraged by the subcommittee highway figure but worries overall road funding will drop sharply when federal stimulus aid ends. “Make no mistake about it,” she says, “without a multiyear [highway-transit] reauthorization bill, we’re still facing this terrible cliff.”

Seeing no predictability from Congress on long-range highway aid, contractors’ focus is on the short term, Hansen says. With forecasts of stopgaps and omnibus bills, he asks, “How do you plan the next construction season around all of this?”

Early transportation Numbers
Program FY 10 enacted FY 11 House subcommittee % chg
Highway obligation limit
Federal Transit Admin.
FAA airport grants
High-speed rail
TIGER grants
Source: House transportation appropriations subcommittee