With highway and transit authorizations set to expire at midnight Feb. 28 and an extension stuck in the Senate, federal reimbursements to states will be cut off March 1 and furloughs will hit the Federal Highway Administration the next day, says House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.).
A possible solution is in the offing, but with Congress adjourned for the weekend, the fix isn't likely to be wrapped up by March 1. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Feb. 26 that she expects the chamber to take up a Senate-passed $15-billion jobs bill during the week of March 1.That measure, which the Senate approved Feb. 24, includes an extension of the highway and transit authorization through Dec. 31.
Seeking to avert a cutoff of federal transportation funds in the meantime, the House on Feb. 25 passed a one-month highway-transit extension, as part of a package of extensions for a variety of federal programs.
But in the Senate Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) blocked action on the House's stopgap package. The Senate is scheduled to take up that extensions measure again on March 1, but it isn't clear whether the bill's supporters can overcome Bunning's objection and get the jobs measure through.
Bunning says he supports the extensions but wants the entire cost of the package to be paid for from other federal revenue or other offsetting actions. He says he has offered "several" possible offsets.
In a conference call with reporters on Feb. 26, Oberstar criticized Bunning's move to block the stopgap a "rather arbitrary and willful action." Oberstar said without an extension, FHWA will be unable as of March 1 to reimburse states for funds they spend on federal-aid highway projects.
Oberstar also said that 4,000 U.S. Dept. of Transportation employees will be furloughed as of March 2, because of the lack of an enacted authorization. That will include most of FHWA's workforce and some personnel at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Research and Innovation Transportation Administration.
In addition, the Federal Transit Administration will be unable to approve any new transit grants for FTA programs that are financed by the Highway Trust Fund, the Minnesota Democrat said.
The lack of a new highway authorization will cut off a significant amount of money. Oberstar says FHWA's average weekly reimbursement to states is $153.6 million per day, or $768 million per week.
Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, said the expiration of the transportation programs would pose big problems for the construction industry. "With 25% of construction workers unemployed," he said, "a $100-billion drop in construction spending last year and countless contractors hanging by a thread, this is the last thing the industry needs right now."
Some House lawmakers had objected to the Senate jobs package because of how it allocates some of the highway funding. But Oberstar said he has an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that the highway allocations will be changed in a follow-on jobs bill that Reid plans to propose. Oberstar says that FHWA would not disburse some of the highway funding allotments that are at issue until that new Reid bill is enacted.
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association told its members that there is precedent for avoiding federal furloughs if funding authority is expected.