Experts See No New Transportation Bill Before Election

Last May, Streetsblog ran an article with the headline “Experts Agree: Six-Year Transportation Bill Won’t Pass This Year.” A lot has happened since then, but we’re still right where we started, butting up against a deadline with more than enough gridlock to give even optimistic experts pause.

The clock is ticking for Congress to approve a new transportation bill, or extend the old one. Smart money says "extension." Image: ##http://www.ananseproductions.com/pax-east/##Ananse Productions##

Here’s where we stand: The current extension of the law authorizing federal transportation funding expires on March 31, which means the worst case scenario is a shutdown of federal transportation programs on April 1. The Senate is close, or closer, anyway, to passing a completely new two-year, $109 billion bill. The House is currently without a proposal of its own, and House Republicans haven’t been keen on the Senate bill — though that might be changing.

If Washington has to stop writing checks to states, then construction projects all over the country would grind to a halt in a matter of weeks, or even days. Senator Barbara Boxer has often pointed out — including at a press conference this morning — that 1.8 million jobs are at stake if that happens.

It’s likely that a shutdown will be avoided. A similar reauthorization fight over aviation resulted in a partial shutdown last year, and memories of the fallout should be fresh enough that Congress would do everything necessary to avoid a repeat.

However, the consensus among the transportation experts, activists, and lobbyists I’ve spoken to over the last few days is that no new transportation bill will be signed into law before March 31, and probably not even before the November election. Opinions seem to differ only on whether there will be just one big stopgap extension, or two smaller ones.

Here’s one likely course of events according to my anonymous conversational partners:

  1. The Senate passes its bill, but probably with very little time to spare.
  2. Congress agrees to a three-week extension of current funding to give the House more time.
  3. The House bill either fizzles or poisons the conference committee process.
  4. Congress passes another extension through the end of calendar 2012.
  5. The lame duck Congress passes something close to the Senate’s two-year bill in December.

In this (purely speculative) scenario, there won’t be another “long-term” (five- or six-year) transportation bill signed until 2014, if then. That would be ten whole years after the enactment of SAFETEA-LU, the law currently in effect by way of eight prior extensions.

The reason for all this lethargy is the funding piece — or lack thereof. One advocate told me that until both parties get serious about raising revenue for transportation, short-term bills will always be favored. Another policy expert said that Tea Party reluctance to spend money could even make an extension a questionable proposition.

But, as more than one expert told me, sooner or later the inevitability of an extension will set in.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, the good news it the Republikan Party is poised to take over Congress. Perhaps they can finally formalize the two-tier system of responsibility that exists already: blue states can pay higher taxes, and be insulted for being lazy and useless, while red states can have nicer roads. Everyone from Sheldon Silver to Eric “bottle of Vaseline in my underwear” Cantor can agree on that.

  • Mark Walker

    This might be a simpleminded response, but somehow I can’t see the monkeywrenching of highway building as an entirely negative thing.

  • Anonymous

    Less federal funding is probably a good thing. The current status quo seems to be that if you build a subdivision out in the middle of nowhere, the federal government will step in to give you a billion-dollar highway widening. If they had to pay for it themselves, there’d be a lot less of it.

  • Adjectives are no longer adequate to describe our government’s actions. We need a new verb. I vote to stretch the meaning of “dysfunction” to encompass both verb and noun. Just as in some countries citizens might say, “Our government functions,” we in the US can state, “Our government dysfunctions.” 

    We all know language must constantly adapt to changing times.

  • Junkpile

    OK this is far enough.  We are in the 21st century not the 19th.  It is time to demand more for our investment in DC.  The blues whine about the red yet had the ability with full control of the Senate, House and executive branch in 2009 to reauthorize.  The reds whine about there not being enough money to fund the program yet will not even debate the need to increase user fees (not taxes since you can avert these fees if you don’t drive) when a few pennies per gallon would help balance revenue with the $50-55B budget – yet we can eat $1/gallon in one month and freely ship it off to oil companies, the middle east and Russia with hardly a wimper.  What about USA jobs, USA assets, USA competitiveness, USA mobility and USA economy do they not understand?  Ya – lets talk about contraception and pipelines and other diversionary amendments….

    Time to pass the 28th Amendment to the constitution.  The Senate and the House shall vote on bills that address a single topic or action and shall not amendment or otherwise incorporate actions that are incompatible with the topic or action of such bills.

    End the sausage factory – make the rascals work – be transparent and serve the public.  Lets get our moneys worth from them and KNOW where they stand, eliminating their ability to get re-elected by hiding behind omnibus legislation like a bunch of cowards.  If it takes 20 votes a day – that is what they are there to do – and they will be held accountable to get things done rather than blame each other in a blue/red blight where their true differences are insignificant and they use the press to try to emphasize how different they are (not).

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