Bloomberg News

House, Senate Extend U.S. Highway Programs Through June

March 29, 2012

Construction crews build new HOV lanes on Interstate 5 between the King/Pierce county line and Port of Tacoma Road. Photographer: Peter Haley/Tacoma News Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

Construction crews build new HOV lanes on Interstate 5 between the King/Pierce county line and Port of Tacoma Road. Photographer: Peter Haley/Tacoma News Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

House and Senate lawmakers voted to extend U.S. highway programs through June 30, averting a shutdown of construction projects and the furlough of 3,500 federal-government workers.

Both chambers acted today to head off the lapse of federal highway programs on March 31. Lawmakers are scheduled to wrap up legislative business this week before taking a spring recess. The temporary measure now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Road projects in every U.S. state would have been affected if Congress failed to act by March 31. The U.S. would have been forced to stop collecting all but 4.3 cents of the 18.4 cents- per-gallon federal tax on gasoline, putting further strain on the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highway and transit projects.

Most Democrats said a vote on a two-year, $109 billion highway plan, passed by the Senate March 14 and blocked in the House, would give states and localities more certainty.

“This extension kicks the can down the road,” said Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the House transportation committee. “It fails to rebuild America just as the construction season begins.”

The administration earlier today pressed for passage of the longer-term Senate bill, which passed with the support of 22 Republicans.

‘Band-Aids’

“It is not enough for us to continue to patch together our nation’s infrastructure future with short-term band-aids,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said in an e-mailed statement. “States and cities need certainty to plan ahead and America’s construction workers deserve the peace of mind that they won’t have to worry about their jobs every few months.”

Congress’s struggles to agree on a multiyear bill have drawn out so long that the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highway and mass transit projects, is almost insolvent. Its highway account may be unable to meet its obligations as soon as October, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said Jan. 31 in a report analyzing Congressional Budget Office data.

The fund’s finances have declined as cars have become more fuel-efficient and Americans drive less because of higher gasoline prices, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.

Projects at Risk

The Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would be “in complete shutdown,” and all reimbursements to states for construction projects or safety programs would stop if lawmakers failed to act, the Transportation Department said earlier this week.

If the highway administration shut down, states could lose reimbursements of $10 million to $12 million a day, said Jack Basso, director of program finance and management at the Washington-based American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

About 3,500 workers at the highway administration, motor carrier administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would be furloughed without an extension, according to the Transportation Department. In past government shutdowns, furloughed employees have later collected back pay.

The Senate bill is S. 1813 and the House bills are H.R. 7, H.R. 4276, H.R. 4281 and H.R. 4239.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

Construction crews build new HOV lanes on Interstate 5 between the King/Pierce county line and Port of Tacoma Road. Photographer: Peter Haley/Tacoma News Tribune/MCT via Getty Images Road projects in every U.S. state would be affected if Congress fails to act by March 31. Photo: George Frey/Bloomberg

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