Congress’ Transport Impasse Hits States — and Not Just Their Road Funds

When lawmakers failed on Wednesday to reach a deal on avoiding the cancellation of $8.7 billion in transportation spending authority, the consequences of Congress' inaction weren't immediately palpable to most voters -- but the loss is sinking in on the local level.

13MVC-013L_1.JPG(Photo: USGS.gov)

From Texas to New Jersey to Colorado, local DOT officials are starting to lament the loss of federal funds that resulted from lawmakers' decision to give themselves one more month to resolve the stalemate over extending the 2005 federal infrastructure law.

And while the $8.7 billion cancellation is mostly imperiling road work, at least one state is cutting money for "enhancements," the catch-all term for bike paths, greenways, and other clean transport projects: 

Even though Congress has passed a one-month extension of the federal highway bill, Tennessee will still lose $190 million it had not yet contracted out. State transportation officials say $30 million will come out of money for enhancement grants.

Enhancement grants have been made for cities to restore old train stations and build bike lanes or sidewalks. They are typically unconventional transportation projects, and TDOT spokeswoman Julie Oakes says competition is stiff.

It's unclear how many states are following Tennessee's lead, but we've got feelers out to various state DOTs and will update this post as more information becomes available. If any readers know of clean transportation projects that have been put at risk by the $8.7 bilion cancellation, please tell us more in the comments section.

Even states that are slicing only highway projects, however, are grappling with the fiscal uncertainty caused by the cancellation. Colorado's two Democratic senators noted last week that their state's scheduled loss of $115 million amounts to one-quarter of the total transportation aid they received under the economic stimulus law.

Congress still has the power to replenish the cancelled spending authority, whether this month or next. But given  House budget rules that require most new funds to be offset, and conservative senators' insistence on using stimulus money for that offset, an agreement may be hard to come by this week.

Late Update: Here's another example of the $8.7 billion cancellation affecting more than just roads. The Nevada DOT says it's having to cut $8 million from transportation enhancements, as well as $4 million in funding for federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) projects and $4 million from the Safe Routes to School program.

The state typically uses CMAQ money on new transit buses for Las Vegas and Reno, as well as ride-share programs to reduce transportation demand and "channelization" work that aim to manage traffic more efficiently, according to Kent Cooper, the Nevada DOT's assistant director of engineering.

"It's a very difficult economic time, and there's a huge impact to the state of Nevada in terms of being able to get contracts out,"Cooper said in an interview . "We got the stimulus money about five or six months ago. This seems to be reversing the impact of providing that stimulus money."

Late Late Update: The North Carolina DOT says the $8.7 billion cancellation is also forcing it to cut money from clean transport -- $5.9 million in transportation enhancements, $55 million in CMAQ aid, and $700,384 from Safe Routes to School, to be specific.