US transportation bill gets one-month extension

Congress has extended the US government’s surface transportation spending authority by one month, dashing hopes for a three-month extension that could have given legislators more time and flexibility to push through a longer, six-year reauthorisation.

The extension came in the form of a continuing appropriations resolution wrapped into the legislative appropriations bill for the government's fiscal year 2010. The bill is a catch-all spending measure that keeps various parts of the government running while Congress debates extending their spending authority in the government’s new fiscal year, which began yesterday.

Like many government spending programmes, federal allocations to surface transportation spending under a 2005 bill known as SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users) was set to expire on 30 September.

Jim Oberstar

Jim Oberstar, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was pushing for a “clean” three-month extension that would have given Congress more time to consider a longer, more ambitious $500 billion transportation spending programme for the next six years.

The measure, House Resolution 3617, passed the House last week but died in the Senate late Wednesday night.

Among the contentious items that led to the bill’s downfall in the Senate was an amendment to eliminate a rescission of $8.7 billion in unspent contract authority from states’ transportation budgets. The amendment proposed to offset the rescission with money from the US’ Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $700 billion bailout fund for the US financial system authorised by Congress last year.

Since the measure failed, the rescission has now taken effect and states will lose the unspent contract authority.

“It can still be changed retroactively, so it may not be a dead issue our preference in the House is to move ahead with six year bill,” said Jim Berard, a spokesperson for the committee.

Berard added that Chairman Oberstar will continue to push for a six year bill in the next month. He faces an obstacle, though, in that the House Ways and Means Committee, which must approve revenue sources for the legislation, is still busy with the proposed healthcare overhaul.

It is not uncommon for Congress to extend existing transportation spending authority while debating new spending measures for federal programmes. The previous reauthorisation bill, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA21), was extended 12 times at various lengths between 2003 and 2005, when Congress passed SAFETEA-LU.