President signs extension of transportation funding

President Barack Obama signed into law a measure today (March 4) that extends until Sept. 30 federal highway and transit programs that had been slated to expire tonight. The seven-month extension averts a suspension of reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the states for their ongoing surface transportation improvement projects, as occurred last March when a similar extension was delayed, and allows states to continue to commit projects just in time for the construction season to begin in earnest. 

The Senate approved the legislation, HR 662, by voice vote late Thursday afternoon. The Senate's vote came without debate in the midst of consideration of an unrelated measure to reform U.S. patent laws. The House of Representatives had voted 421-4 Wednesday afternoon to pass the bill.

"We're pleased that Congress and President Obama acted this week to extend federal highway and transit programs by seven months, allowing thousands of construction projects state departments of transportation have planned or under construction to move forward, uninterrupted," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "Now we set about the hard work of getting a multiyear reauthorization in place later this year. This essential legislation will allow states to continue to preserve and modernize the surface transportation systems that individuals, families, and businesses depend on everyday. We must get this done."

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-California, said in a statement that the seven-month extension of Fiscal Year 2009 funding levels for highways and mass transit will save and create jobs in the construction industry and help get the economy back on track.

"With the construction season upon us, this extension is especially important because it will give states the certainty they need to award contracts and get projects underway," she said. "This will help ensure that jobs are saved and created in California and across the country. I am continuing to work with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle on a new surface transportation bill for the 21st century. Our goal is to get this legislation enacted by the end of this year."

In a statement issued Thursday evening after Senate passage of the bill, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Florida, said the extension will provide some stability for state transportation departments to continue planning and constructing transportation projects through the summer construction season.

"This extension of transportation programs will allow more time for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to develop a fiscally responsible, long-term reauthorization of transportation programs to create jobs and build our nation's infrastructure," Mica said.

The new law extends until the end of this federal fiscal year the 2005 highway and transit authorization law -- the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, commonly known as "SAFETEA-LU." Expenditure authority for the Highway Trust Fund would also continue through Sept. 30. This is the seventh short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU, which expired Sept. 30, 2009.

Support for Extension Nearly Unanimous
During less than an hour of debate on the House floor Wednesday, no representatives spoke against the extension. Several members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee urged action on moving forward a long-term reauthorization.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon and ranking minority member of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said the United States is falling behind many other nations when it comes to investing in transportation infrastructure.
"We have the worst infrastructure of any modern nation on Earth," DeFazio said. "It's not right. It doesn't serve our businesses or communities well."

DeFazio noted the Senate earlier Wednesday had passed and sent to the president a two-week continuing resolution (House Joint Resolution 44) extending government funding from Friday to March 18, a measure that includes nearly $1 billion in cuts to transportation programs including a $650 million reduction in highway spending for this fiscal year compared to Fiscal Year 2010, rescission of $293 million in unspent transportation earmarks from previous years, and a $25 million reduction in the Rail Line Relocation and Improvement program.

"Rebuilding our infrastructure -- this is the last place we should cut," he said. "Unfortunately, some cuts have already been proposed and made in transportation. That's not where we should be cutting. Those who would advocate further cuts are wrong."

Obama last month proposed a $556 billion six-year surface transportation reauthorization as part of his FY 2012 budget request. (see Feb. 18 AASHTO Journal story) It did not issue recommendations on how to pay for the bill, however.

Published 3-4-2011