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What's the Rush on the Highway Bill Reauthorization?

Surprise! A three-month transportation funding bill turns out to have funds for nine months! While unanticipated funds certainly sound like good news, it also takes immediate pressure off the House to working on a six-year reauthorization bill.
September 15, 2015, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The day before Congress adjourned for its summer recess at the end of July, the Senate passed two transportation funding bills: one for three years, and the other was a $8.1 billion bill to finance highway spending for only three months (through Oct. 29), under the premise that when the House returned in September they would take up long term funding, as the Senate had already successfully done.

H.R.3236 - "The Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015," still expires October 29, but due to an anticipated winter slowdown in highway construction, the bill's funding won't be exhausted until June 30, 2016 according to the Highway Trust Fund Ticker.

While it is undoubtedly good news for the U.S. taxpayer in that its $8.1 billion highway subsidy can be stretched from five to 11 months, it's not particularly good for infrastructure advocates hoping for a long-term transportation reauthorization bill for state departments of transportation to secure long-term construction projects.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) "is cautioning Congress, though, that it will still have to pass an extension of the federal policy that authorizes the transportation spending by Oct. 29," writes Keith Laing for The Hill. 

"Although sufficient balances exist in the Highway Trust Fund to maintain solvency through the third quarter of FY 2016, an October 29th lapse in authorization prevents new obligations in Highway and Transit programs and impacts reimbursements to States," according to DOT. 

(T)ransportation officials said they would be able to make the dollars stretch further than expected because the pace of U.S. construction typically slows down greatly in the winter. 

However, Politico reported that "DOT sources said the trust fund balances would still fall close to a safe cushion level as soon as this November, although the department did not anticipate it will need to impose cash management restrictions on state DOTs or transit agencies," according to AASHTO Journal.

Some programs are dependent on the Senate's long-term bill known as the Drive Actsuch as "funding to study the restoration of Amtrak's Sunset Limited route along the Gulf Coast until Hurricane Katrina," aposted here earlier this month. 

Laing reported on a similar two-month "cushion" back in April allowing lawmakers to pass, by my count, the 33rd extension of transportation funding since 2009, where the highway program was reauthorized but new funding that needed to be "offset" was not necessary. Should Congress take the easy way out and simply extend the current patch bill till June 2016, it would mark the 35th extension.

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Published on Tuesday, September 8, 2015 in The Hill
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