With the Highway Trust Fund expected to dip into the red as early as August, President Obama has urged Congress to approve new funding to avoid a halt in new highway projects. He also has added more projects to a priority list for expedited reviews by federal agencies.
Speaking in Tarrytown, N.Y., where initial work has begun on a $5-billion replacement for the 59-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River, Obama said if Congress does not approve new transportation funding by the end of the summer, the impact on new projects would be severe. “There will be no money,” he declared. “The cupboard will be bare.” (The White House’s transcription of the speech is here.)
The trust fund's highway account is projected to start running a deficit this summer. Unless Congress adds new revenue to the fund, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said his department would have to delay reimbursements to states for their highway-project obligations.
Moreover, the current highway-transit authorization, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), expires on Sept. 30. If a successor bill or even a stopgap isn't in place by then, federal aid would be cut off, halting new road and bridge projects.
There has been some progress on Capitol Hill. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 15 unanimously cleared the highway portion of a hoped-for six-year surface-transportation package. It would increase highway obligations by a modest 2% per year over the current level.
In his speech, Obama also announced that the administration is taking action to get projects now on the drawing boards under construction more rapidly, adding 11 jobs to its online “dashboard” list of transportation and other projects designated for faster federal permitting.
The Tappan Zee project was already on the list. With the existing span and the river in the background, Obama told a crowd of about 250 people that federal agencies moved to “fast-track” the project's review.
Obama said such projects would take, typically, three to five years to get a permit, but he added, “We did it in a year and a half.” One reason for the accelerated schedule was that agencies did their reviews concurrently, rather than sequentially.
Industry officials and congressional lawmakers have said that having a series of agencies study and sign off, one after another, on projects can delay their construction starts and increase costs.
Of the 11 new dashboard projects, seven are surface-transportation jobs, including the 7.6-mile Federal Way light-rail extension in King County, Wash. Its cost is estimated at $1.3 billion to $1.8 billion.
Looking ahead, the White House said in a background memo, “The administration’s goal is for all major infrastructure projects to be included on the Dashboard to institutionalize and broaden the reach of this tool.”