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September 30th, 2009
THE DIG
Federal transportation law gets one-month extension

Tom McNamara, Blueprint America

President Barack Obama with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood || photo: White House / streetsblog.org

UPDATE

Late Wednesday, the Senate, in conjunction with a House vote last week, passed a one-month extension of the 2005 transportation law, which would have expired at midnight.

*  *  *

At midnight Wednesday, the federal transportation law funding national highway and transit programs will expire. Amid a lack of consensus in Congress on what to do—as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been at odds with both the Senate and the Obama Administration—the current law will almost certainly be extended for one-month. However, it is a short-term fix — an even shorter-term fix than the three-month extension passed in the House last week or the proposed 18-month extension in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The federal transportation law is supposed to be re-authorized every six years, although extensions have become commonplace in this process.

House and Senate appropriations committees agreed to the one-month reprieve as a legislative failsafe in order to keep federal transportation funding mechanisms going at 2009 levels, including the Highway Trust Fund, until lawmakers can complete the new budget. The House approved the resolution on Sept. 25. The Senate is expected to pass it sometime before the Wednesday deadline.

That said, there is nothing to suggest that the Congressional impasse that led to the one-month extension will be solved in just a month’s time. The current transportation law, which was finally passed in 2005, had a dozen similar extensions. Simply, Oct. 31 could look a lot like Sept. 30.

Still, more important than Congress and the Administration agreeing on a three-month or 18-month extension is a consensus on a new transportation law. Already, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D., Minn.) has introduced a $450 billion dollar bill that not only increases current federal transportation funding but also restructures some funding practices and reorganizes the Department of Transportation. But, as Congress remains in similar gridlock over healthcare, the Administration has opposed any action on Rep. Oberstar’s legislation. As a result, the majority of the Senate, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has sided with the President. Moreover, neither the Senate nor the Administration has put forth their own bills to reauthorize federal transportation funding. Though Rep. Oberstar’s bill was introduced in June, nothing guarantees it will be the legislation that passes one-month, three-months or 18-months from now.

More to lose down the road

Even if the one-month extension is approved in the Senate Wednesday, a measure to dissolve $8.7 billion in un-obligated federal highway assistance will be triggered Thursday unless lawmakers act to correct the matter. But, as the one-month resolution is a conference report, both houses must pass it without amendments.

The 18-month extension proposed by Sen. Boxer would repeal the measure, but action on her bill is unlikely to happen before the deadline. There is no companion language in the House extension.

The loss of the $8.7 billion could lead to project cancellations nationwide. Some states can draw on their own reserves to continue work. Overall, states could lose some $3 billion.

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