Senator stalls transportation, jobless funds

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A stalemate in Congress will choke off the flow of federal transportation funding to states starting Monday and cause the furlough of thousands of employees on Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee chairman said Friday.

"Astonishing," said Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn.

The federal surface transportation authorization law, which expired Sept. 30 and has been extended three times since then, will again expire Sunday, and Congress has been unable to pass an extension.

The issue has been mired in a disagreement over House and Senate versions of a jobs bill, but Mr. Oberstar said a compromise had been worked out Friday.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., used procedural prerogatives, however, to singlehandedly block several one-month extension measures from moving through the Senate, including funding for transportation, unemployment benefits and COBRA health care benefits. He said those extensions would add $10 billion to the federal deficit, and he won't agree to them unless Congress slashes the economic stimulus program or finds other ways to offset the costs.

Referring to the nation's soaring debt, he said, "I have got too many young grandchildren that want America to be the same America that I grew up in. And I'm worried to death that that's not going to be the case."

At a briefing for reporters Friday afternoon, Mr. Oberstar said that starting Monday, daily reimbursements averaging $153.6 million will cease to flow to states from the Federal Highway Administration. Some $31.4 million per day in payments by the Federal Transit Administration will also be frozen. A variety of highway programs will shut down, including the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which inspects trucks for safety hazards, he said.

All FHWA and FMCSA employees will be furloughed Tuesday, along with part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration staff, Mr. Oberstar said. He estimated that 4,000 workers would be sidelined.

Of significance to Pennsylvania, the FHWA is still considering the state's application to toll Interstate 80. Any work on that issue presumably would halt.

If the shutdown persists, states could halt contract letting, and construction jobs may be affected, Mr. Oberstar said.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said a freeze of a week or so won't seriously affect the state, but "an extended delay will seriously disrupt our schedule."

"What failure to enact the latest extension by the deadline means is that FHWA is out of business and cannot process our reimbursements for costs incurred improving highways and bridges. We have the state dollars to cover our payments to contractors for now, but we are talking about roughly $1.5 billion a year in federal dollars that are critical for our program, and we can't replace that with state dollars over an extended period," he said.

"The other impact is if FHWA is shut down, we can't get the approvals we need to advertise projects for bid. We are aiming for another $1.8 billion in highway and bridge contracts this calendar year. And we are approaching construction season, so we need our program to move forward on schedule."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Friday criticized Congress for failing to extend the transportation law. "The shutdown of the federal highway program means that thousands of jobs are at risk," said Janet Kavinoky, the chamber's transportation and infrastructure director.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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