State highway officials say that if Congress lets the federal motor-fuels tax lapse on Sept. 30, it would cause cutbacks or stretch-outs in highway construction projects or even a complete shutdown of federal and state highway and transit programs.

When Congress returns after Labor Day, it will have only 11 legislative days before the authority to collect the fuel tax and the authority to commit the funding expire. Leaders of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) held an Aug. 23 conference call with reporters to underscore how critical the situation is.

Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Dept. of Transportation,
said AASHTO wants Congress to pass two separate, but closely related, bills: one to extend the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and another to reauthorize the federal highway and transit programs at least at their current annual levels of $42 billion for highways and $11 billion for transit.

John Horsley, AASHTO executive director, says getting the gas-tax bill enacted by Sept. 30 is the more urgently needed action. He says if the tax lapses, federal highway and transit agencies would have to shut down their programs.

Martinovich, who also is AASHTO's president this year, adds that many states would have to halt their highway programs, too.

The cost of federally aided highway projects is split, with Uncle Sam usually covering 80% of the total cost and states contributing the rest.

But states typically put up their own funds for projects' total costs  and then later seek reimbursement in installments from the Federal Highway Administration for the 80% federal share as the projects proceed and contractors submit bills for phases completed. 

Martinovich says she would be unable to put new projects out for bids without knowing whether they will be funded. Moreover, she says, "Projects that are currently under construction may need to be shut down," because FHWA won't be able to reimburse the state for the money it advanced.

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock says his agency plans to award contracts for about $450 million in federal-aid road and bridge projects through the end of December.

But he says, "Every one of those projects is in jeopardy because we have no assurance that federal funding's going to be in place to pay the bills on those projects when those bills come due."

Hancock says his department is watching Congress closely. He adds, "And do we have confidence that Congress will take care of everything they need to take care of in the 11 days?  I look back a couple of weeks and my confidence is shaken."

That's an apparent reference to Capitol Hill developments in early August. Congress at that time narrowly averted a default on federal debt obligations and a House-Senate dispute over a short-term aviation bill caused a two-week shutdown in the federal airport grant program before it was resolved.

Horsley says there is a desire in the Senate to pass a four-month highway-transit reauthorization extension. But he says AASHTO has not yet heard from the key House legislator on this issue, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), whether he will support a similar stopgap measure.