The uncertain future of federal transportation funding loomed large over the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' annual meeting, held in Detroit on Oct. 13-17. Under the theme “Leading in Lean Times,” directors of state departments of transportation discussed ways to weather the choppy financing environment.

“In regards to our aging infrastructure, there's generally a pessimistic view of the future funding picture,” said Malcolm Dougherty, Caltrans acting director. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, addressing the attendees, called on them to urge Congress to pass a multi-year highway-transit bill. “Passing the surface transportation bill will put America back to work,” LaHood said.

House and Senate transportation leaders have been drafting bills, touting those not-yet-introduced measures as job-creating engines. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) told reporters in Washington on Oct. 24, “I think there's quite a move in Congress, especially on the Republican side, to make this the jobs bill, the primary jobs bill.”

Mica proposed a six-year, $230-billion bill in July. But he says House GOP leaders have committed to fund it at least at the $285-billion level of the last multi-year statute. Currently, projected Highway Trust Fund revenue is $50 billion to $100 billion short of $285 billion, and a gas-tax hike is off the table, he says.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in September floated the idea of linking the highway bill and expanded domestic energy production, and presumably payments from oil and gas drilling.

Jack Basso, AASHTO director of program management and finance, says he sees enough bipartisan support to pass a bill before the 2012 election cycle—if funding gaps can be filled. Basso says he is hopeful about a six-year bill but says a two-year, $109-billion proposal from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is a viable option. Basso says, “A two-year bill at current funding levels could get done this year.” Boxer plans a Nov. 9 committee vote on her plan but must find $12 billion to reach the $109-billion goal.

LaHood made a last-ditch effort at the AASHTO meeting to promote President Obama's American Jobs Act, which would include $50 billion for transportation. After the GOP deemed Obama's jobs package a non-starter, Senate Democratic leaders have split it into pieces. They plan to bring up the $50-billion transportation portion and $10 billion for an infrastructure bank during the week of Oct. 31.

Several state DOT chiefs noted the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act consumed many of the “shovel-ready” projects they had held back for lack of funds. Now, says Kirk Steudle, Michigan DOT director, “For many states, there aren't a lot of projects on the shelf. It would be a good thing to rebuild 'shelf' projects.”

Meanwhile, DOT directors are seeking other ways to cope with the financial squeeze. Tolling, public-private partnerships and downsizing were hot topics at the conference.

Missouri DOT's annual construction program averaged $1.2 billion over the past five years but is expected to be half that level over the next five, says Director Kevin Keith. MoDOT is paring staff by 1,200 and closing 130 facilities. “Those measures freed up $117 million that we can spend on Missouri roads and bridges,” Keith says. In Rhode Island, a strong new bill from Congress is critical because the state's program relies almost entirely on federal aid, says Michael Lewis, RIDOT director. He says the state faces large debt-service obligations and adds, “Reauthorization of a surface transportation bill will make or break Rhode Island's ability to offer even basic services.”