US highway authority in budget drama

Jim Bunning, the Senator for Kentucky, blocked a bill to extend the US’ current transportation budget, a move which could take away the Federal Highway Administration's spending power effective 1 March.

A bill to extend the budget authority of the US Federal Highway Administration and other transportation agencies failed to get through the Senate Friday afternoon, threatening to take away the Administration's budget authority effective Monday, 1 March.

“The shut down of the federal highway programme means that the Federal Highway Administration will not be able to reimburse states or any Federal highway or transit funds,” Representative Jim Oberstar, Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told reporters on a conference call Friday afternoon.

The agency, which administers the US’ highway spending programme, submits payments to states in returns for vouchers they submit for federal highway transportation projects. Oberstar estimates that, on average, the agency pays states $768 million per week, or $153.6 million per night.

“That $153.6 million is what would not be paid Monday morning,” Oberstar said.

The situation highlights the precarious nature of the temporary funding currently being extended to the Federal Highway Administration and other transportation agencies covered by the US’ transportation spending budget. The last multi-year budget expired on 30 September 2009. But with the absence of the passage of a new bill that would install a new budget in its place, Congress has instead been forced to proceed with short-term transportation spending extensions, like the 30-day extension that failed to pass today.

Oberstar said this was the fourth such extension since the expiration in September.

Congress can still avert an operational shut down of the agency, which would begin 2 March, if the House passes the so-called “Jobs Bill” – a stimulus measure that includes infrastructure spending provisions and an extension of the highway programme through the end of the current calendar year.

In the past, during situations such as these, where the House or Senate passes an extension of a federal agency’s budgetary authority but the other Chamber does not, the practice has been to not shut down the agency if there is an indication that Congress will act quickly to restore the authority and have the President sign it into law.

If the jobs bill does not pass, though, a scenario could unfold in which the Federal Highway Admistration would not reimbursing states and would furlough its employees.

The impasse resulted from Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning's blocking of the transportation extension, which was wrapped in a larger package of budgetary authority extensions for other federal programs. Oberstar called Bunning's action “astonishing”.

A spokesperson for Bunning did not return a request for comment by press time.

A day earlier, the House had passed the same resolution, which would have extended the agency’s funding for another 30 days.

Oberstar has been busy promoting a new $500 billion, six-year transportation bill to replace the current transportation bill. But US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has come out in favor of a shorter, 18-month extension of the current bill to give Congress more time to find sources of funding for Oberstar’s bill.

“I have talked to him several times, he likes the various elements of our bill,” Oberstar said of LaHood, adding: “When we agree on a funding mechanism, I think the administration will be dancing along with us.”

Oberstar hopes to pass his transportation bill this year.