Deadline draws near on highway legislation
Extension of funding is possible outcome
WASHINGTON – Facing a ticking clock, Congress picked up the pace this week in an attempt to reach a compromise on the $109 billion highway spending bill by June 30.
That’s when the latest extension of the current law expires and lawmakers must either pass a new bill or extend the current one for the tenth time since 2009. Among the projects getting money from the new bill or an extension would be a nearly $11 million interchange on U.S. Highway 195 at Cheney-Spokane Road.
Several sticking points remain, such as whether to cut funding for bike paths or include authorization for the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas. Such controversies lead many to believe there will be another short-term extension of the bill.
Steve Pierce, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, is among them.
“We expect the Congress to act on another short-term extension, possibly carrying us through the end of the federal fiscal year” on Sept. 30, he said.
If that happens, more than a dozen Eastern Washington projects scheduled to start before Sept. 30 could continue. But another extension doesn’t give certainty to the state, which relies on federal dollars to reimburse many projects, Pierce said.
Over the past 10 years, federal funds on average have made up 27 percent of Washington’s highway budget.
John Horsely, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the lack of a long-term bill frustrates the industry.
“Bad news for the states is that they will have to delay their major projects and go to short-term only,” he said. “Worse than that, if we get to February next year when the federal (government) will run out of money, the highway programs may face a major reduction from $39 billion to $8 billion.”
At 18.4 cents a gallon, the federal gas tax has not increased since the Clinton administration. Fewer dollars are coming into the trust fund because people drive less and new cars use less gas; inflation makes the budget even tighter.
The industry is desperate for a new bill to prevent the federal trust fund running out of money, Horsely said. “It’s absolutely crucial that they have the new reauthorization bill passed soon.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this week the bill was moving with “significant progress.”
“We hope that we can get this over the finish line. It would be wonderful for the country, it really, really would be, and we’re trying,” Reid said.
Chenfei Zhang is a student in the University of Missouri Journalism School’s Washington Reporting Program who works as a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.