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AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Even before Republicans formally took control of the House, they dealt a blow to highway construction advocates.

A package of House rules that the chamber's GOP conference cleared during the evening of Jan. 4 includes a provision that in effect would breach the 1998 'firewall' that guaranteed that annual highway funding levels in multi-year authorization laws would be the amounts states actually could spend on roads in those years. 

The new rule could mean that House appropriators will approve highway spending cuts below the amounts authorized. 

The full House approved the package, including the highway provision, on Jan. 5, the first day of the 112th Congress. The 240-191 vote followed party lines. 

The firewall was the keystone of the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), whose prime architect, ironically, was a powerful Republican, Rep. Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania. Shuster was then the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

House Republicans' new action is a major disappointment to construction and transportation groups, but it is far from the last word. For one thing, a House rule does not apply to the Senate, and lawmakers in the upper chamber, which is still under Democrats' control, could choose to continue the highway firewalls.

In addition, the 'firewall' provision has remained on the books, under the 2005 SAFETEA-LU law and its succeeding extensions.

But Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), says, "Our worry is that the rules change would survive a parliamentary challenge [in the House] despite the 1998 statute." 

Prior to 1998, congressional appropriators had the upper hand in determining what the actual annual highway funding levels would be. Those appropriated sums for highways more often than not were lower than the amounts authorized in measures such as the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and its predecessors. 

Transportation and construction groups had sought to have the new House rule dropped or changed. Twenty-one organizations, including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, AGC, and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), had written to House leaders on Dec. 28, urging them to reconsider the proposed highway rule.

But in a closed meeting on Jan. 4, the GOP leaders cleared their rules package inlcuding the highway rule. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) offered an amendment that would have modified the highway provision but his proposal was defeated, a congressional source says.

Industry organizations were disappointed by the House action. ARTBA CEO Peter Ruane said in a statement after the Jan. 4 vote, "This is a reversion back to the budget gimmicks of the past that allows the Highway Trust Fund balance to be used to hide the true size of the federal deficit."

He added, "The real-life implication of this action is that it injects further uncertainty into an already reeling U.S. transportation construction market where unemployment is in excess of 18%," which is well above the national jobless rate.