Associations Prod Congress to Avoid Cliff, Pass Long-Term Highway/Transit Bill

AASHTO Journal, 19 June 2015

Major transportation industry groups urged Congress to avoid letting a highway and transit bill become a victim of political faceoffs this summer, asking lawmakers instead to provide funding certainty for agencies depending on those programs and renewing their calls for long-term legislation.

Associations representing state departments of transportation, transit agencies and construction firms pressed their concerns in testimony submitted to revenue-raising committees in the House and Senate that held hearings June 17 and 18.

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Their comments also came amid a new push by minority Senate Democrats to try to force majority Republicans to agree on a rigid timetable for hearings and bill markups to produce a long-term bill before Highway Trust Fund programs expire July 31 (see related story). Reports have also said Democrats might only support a series of very-short-term extension votes until a long-term bill is passed.

That raised the prospect that Democrats, many of whom say they do not want to keep supporting short extensions, could create high-stakes deadlines this summer that heat up transportation funding as a political issue between the parties.

If Congress were to let trust fund authority lapse at some point this summer, or fail to inject more funding before the U.S. Department of Transportation imposes cash management curbs in its reimbursements to states for highway project bills, that could create substantial problems for state DOTs, said John Cox, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Cox, who is also director of the Wyoming DOT, said in remarks submitted for the record┬áto the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee: “Because states count on prompt payment from the federal government to be able manage cash flow and pay contractors for completed work, any delay in reimbursement from FHWA will cause a significant disruption in all states.”

He continued that would in turn hurt contractors who rely on prompt state payment, as they “would be unable to pay their employees and suppliers.” Cox said that would be “a devastating scenario” that would “send shock waves throughout the transportation community and all other industries supported by federal infrastructure investment.”

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association in its testimony urged Congress to carve out more dedicated revenue for the Highway Trust Fund so that lawmakers would not be faced with the same funding cliff later, when temporary measures run out.

“We need a sustainable funding solution to put this critical national program back on solid footing for the next decade,” ARTBA said. The group repeated its call for Congress to raise federal motor fuel user fees as the most effective way to increase dedicated trust fund receipts.

In the meantime, that group added: “While some are worried about the political consequences of voting for a real trust fund fix, the rest of America is worried about commute times growing, bridges being closed, shipping costs increasing, and jobs being lost. It’s time for both parties to work together for America to put this behind us.”

Michael Melaniphy, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, said short-term patches have also disrupted transit industry projects.

“The uncertainty of recent federal authorizing laws and lack of predictable funding of the federal transit program have made it nearly impossible for the industry to keep the system in a state of good repair, replace the aging infrastructure and fleets, and address the growing demand for service,” he said in submitted remarks. “Short-term authorizations increase project costs and decrease certainty for long-term planning.”

APTA asked lawmakers to enact a long-term authorization that substantially increases transit funding, and does so by increasing the most effective dedicated revenue option.

“The next program will absolutely require a wide range of funding options,” Melaniphy said. “But for the immediate future, we feel strongly that the base program must restore and increase the purchasing power of the federal motor fuels user tax while we concurrently move with a true sense of urgency to develop and implement a national transportation future funding model that is both economically and environmentally sustainable. We need to have funding predictability, both for our agencies and our private sector partners.”

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