State transportation officials and construction firms are hoping that shortly after Congress returns from its summer recess, lawmakers will extend the federal motor-fuels tax as well as the federal highway and transit programs. But Congress will have to move quickly: When legislators go back into session after Labor Day, there will be only 11 legislative days before the gas-tax and highway-transit authorizations expire on Sept. 30.
Industry officials are hopeful Congress will act in time. Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, says, "I think there's broad agreement on the need to extend the gas tax. it's not controversial." However, he says, if the gas-tax and highway-transit authorization extensions are combined in the same bill, the highway-transit part could be controversial.
Cohen says, "I think there's a little bit more nervousness now," given the two-week shutdown in late July and early August of the federal airport grant program when a dispute arose over a short-term aviation extension. He adds, "The controversy wasn't really over the need to continue the [aviation] taxes. It was over the policies associated with the extension, and the taxes got caught up in it."
About $30 million per day in aviation taxes was lost. Cohen notes that the motor-fuels tax is much larger, resulting in about $100 million per day in revenue for the Highway Trust Fund.
There are hopeful signs on the highway-transit and gas-tax front. John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), says there is a desire in the Senate to pass a four-month highway-transit extension.
A House staffer says Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, "supports extending the surface-transportation programs and extending the gas tax before the Sept. 30 expiration. He has been clear about that."
Cohen says, "Unlike the FAA bill, there's a broad recognition that we cannot affaord to allow this [gas] tax to lapse," and he thinks Congress will do what's needed to keep it going. That effort could mean either a gas-tax extension bill that is separate from a surface-transportation program extension or a broader bill that combines both of those measures, such as a government-wide continuing appropriations package.
That spending measure would be a must-pass bill because appropriations are needed to keep agencies operating after Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
If Congress lets the gas tax lapse, state transportation officials say, it would cause cutbacks or schedule delays in highway construction projects or even a complete shutdown of federal and state highway and transit programs.
Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Dept. of Transportation, said in an Aug. 23 AASHTO conference call with reporters that AASHTO wants Congress to extend the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and reauthorize the highway and transit programs at least at their current annual levels of $42 billion for highways and $11 billion for transit.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, says, "Failing to extend the surface-transportation program would certainly make it harder for the construction industry to recover and may push the industry back into a downturn by delaying or cancelling billions of dollars of construction projects.