Beating a March 31 deadline with little time to spare, Congress has approved—and President Obama has signed—legislation that would keep federal highway and transit programs running for the next three months. The stopgap is the ninth short-term extension since September 2009, when the last multi-year authorization expired. 

Final congressional action on the bill came on March 29, when the Senate passed it on a voice vote. Earlier in the day, the House had cleared the measure by a 266-158 tally.

Obama signed the bill on March 30, one day before the previous stopgap authorization was to expire. Enactment averts dire consequences for transportation programs, including a shutdown of the Federal Highway Administration and expiration of most of the 18.4¢-per-gallon federal gasoline tax.

Construction industry and state transportation officials expected that Congress would act before the deadline and were relieved that it did so.

What they strongly prefer, however, is a multi-year bill, but that goal remained elusive.

The co-chairs of the Transportation Construction Coalition—American Road and Transportation Builders Association CEO Peter Ruane and Associated General Contractors of America CEO Stephen Sandherr—said in a blunt statement: “While we supported the extension approved [March 29] to prevent a shutdown of essential infrastructure improvements across the nation, that support should not be confused as acceptance of inaction on a multi-year reauthorization bill.”

Ruane and Sandherr added, “Our members are growing increasingly frustrated that Congress seems incapable of passing critical legislation that improves the flow of commerce and promotes economic growth....The federal highway and public transportation programs have been governed by extension for 30 months. Congress can and must do better.”

The Senate on March 14 passed a $109-billion, two-year highway-transit measure. in the House, Republican leaders had proposed a five-year, $260-billion transportation measure, packaged with provisions aimed at boosting domestic oil and gas drilling. 

House committees cleared the transportation and energy components in early February. But since then, things bogged down, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been unable to round up enough support among his GOP colleagues to get the package approved.

Boehner hasn't dropped the idea of a House long-term transportation bill. He said in a March 29 press conference that the GOP would be working over the next couple of weeks on what presumably would be a revised multi-year proposal.