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: 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.