Congress again has extended authorizations for federal highway and transit programs, but only through July 31, failing to produce the long-term measure with strong funding increases that construction industry and state transportation officials have long been pushing for.
Final congressional action on the measure came early in the morning of May 23, when the Senate passed it on a voice vote. The new stopgap is the 33rd extension in six years.
The House had approved the bill on May 19. Congress needed to act before its Memorial Day break because the current stopgap was set to expire on May 31.
President Obama is expected to sign the bill before that deadline.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx had warned state highway and local transit officials that if no new bill were in place by May 31, authorizations would lapse and thus all federal aid reimbursements to states would have to be cut off completely.
In passing a two-month extension, Congress took the path of least difficulty. Lawmakers didn’t have to provide any additional revenue for the struggling Highway Trust Fund yet, because the fund’s highway account is projected to stay in the black until about the end of July or early August.
Transportation and construction officials wanted much more than a two-month reprieve. “We are disappointed and frustrated,” said Bud Wright, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director.
Wright added, “State DOTs are already postponing construction projects this year because they can’t count on federal funds to be there.”
Kathleen Bower, American Automobile Association vice president for public affairs, told reporters in a May 19 briefing, “These short-term patchtes are not economically responsible. It is no way to fund the transportation system."
She added, "It is inefficient. It costs us a lot of money. It's almost like a payday loan.”
The new stopgap may not be the last, however. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) told the Rules Committee on May 18 that he thinks the transportation revenue issue will be addressed in a broader tax-reform measure.
Shuster noted that the Ways and Means Committee is working on tax reform and said, "We may well have to push [transportation funding] out toward the end of the year to give them the time to do their work."
Any bill that goes beyond July 31 will need to include additional revenue to refuel the trust fund. Even a stopgap running only through September would require $5 billion. Jack Basso, principal of Peter J. Basso & Associates, Rockville, Md., says that an extension through December would need a total of $10 billion.
Infrastructure advocates continue to press for the long-range bill. Terry O’Sullivan, Laborers’ International Union of North America general president, said, “Any further extensions that preclude a long-term sustainable solution to the Highway Trust Fund crisis should be dead on arrival.”