One Thousand Days of Just Spinning Their Wheels

By Stacey Pine|Posted on June 21, 2012

Pressure continues to build on Capitol Hill as lawmakers face the pending expiration of the current transportation law (SAFETEA-LU)  on June 30, 2012.   While transportation has historically been an issue that has garnered bipartisan support, the reauthorization of the surface transportation law has shed much light on the partisan divide that now plagues Congress and the dysfunction that accompanies it. It is expected that lawmakers will be unable to reach a compromise by June 30, in which case we will likely see another extension. 


When Congress enacts the surface transportation law, it generally does so for a period of five years, and at the end of those five years, Congress revisits the law and makes necessary changes to policy as well as spending levels. If Congress is unable to agree on a long-term reauthorization of the law we generally see a few extensions of the current program which allows funding to continue to flow to states while giving lawmakers an opportunity to reach an agreement on the long-term bill. The obvious benefit of a long-term law is that it provides states and localities with certainty for funds and allows them to confidently enter into contracts for major transportation projects, knowing there will be funding available to pay contract obligations.


The current law was first set to expire in September 2009, and since that time we have seen nine extensions.  Come July 1, a 10th extension will be necessary in order to keep money flowing to the states, and, at that point, Congress will have gone over 1,000 days without passing a new transportation law.


According to the U.S. Chamber, this band-aid approach has created uncertainty relative to funding assurances which has caused states to forego entering into contracts. The net result has been the loss of thousands of jobs. 


An ominous sign that it will be a long road to a final transportation bill is the fact that conferees are at an impasse without having discussed the Keystone pipeline and other issues dubbed as the most “contentious”.  The current controversy over the bill revolves around the environmental and regulatory reviews of projects and how to pay for the bill. 


Even our park and recreation interests have become controversial points in the transportation debate.  The Senate proposes continued funding to states for projects such as bike and pedestrian trails.  A small group of House Republicans, who are on the conference committee, are adamantly against this proposal and are working to allow states the ability to “opt out”  of using this money for active transportation projects and use it, instead, for highway maintenance and construction.  The result would be an end to over 20 years of dedicated federal funding for biking and walking and localities would need to find other means of funding such projects.


John Boehner (R-OH), the Speaker of the House, has stated that should Congress fail to complete a final bill by June 30th, he would advocate for a six month extension.  In other words, Boehner is proposing to “kick the can” to the next Congress which will be seated in January.  That would entail starting the process all over. 


The problem with that is the Highway Trust Fund, the primary funding source for federal transportation construction and maintenance, is scheduled to run out of money in early 2013. All of us contribute to the Highway Trust Fund each time we fill up at the pump through a fuel tax assessed on each gallon of gas we buy. While none of us like to pay more taxes, the fuel tax has not been increased since 1993.  As a result, the cost of highway construction and maintenance has increased, but the amount of money being put into the fund has not kept pace. 


The Highway Trust Fund is authorized under SAFETEA-LU and the fact it’s nearly  out of money  puts considerable pressure on lawmakers to complete a bill this session.   House and Senate leaders met earlier this week and have agreed to work through the end of this week in an attempt to solidify a deal that will avoid expiration on June 30th.  While this is a step in the right direction, we are unlikely to see any real attempt at a compromise until after the November elections. 


Given the current state of negotiations even the pundits and hill staff are starting to question whether we will actually see a bill passed before the end of the year.  What do you think?

Written by Stacey Pine, NRPA Vice President of Government Affairs