Road Projects Feel the Pain of Congress’ Last-Minute Funding Extensions

Construction, engineering and transportation groups are frustrated by the House once again delaying a vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and also having to enact another short-term extension of federal transportation funding.  

“Repeated month-long extensions of the federal funding programs for transit, roads and bridges mean that cities and states cannot move forward with critical transportation projects,” says Tim Smith, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

On Thursday, a House vote on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was delayed after negotiations among Democrats broke down. The House did, however, extend transportation funding until December 3. The funding was set to expire October 31 after a previous 30-day extension.

Meanwhile, construction and related industry associations are becoming more frustrated, not only at the inability to pass the infrastructure bill but at leaving states in a lurch with last-minute, temporary extensions.

A recent survey of departments of transportation around the country revealed that many DOTs face uncertainty with planned road and bridge contruction projects because of the temporary extensions.

In the survey, conducted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet commented:

“Over the next four months, KYTC has over a quarter of a billion dollars in projects scheduled for construction lettings. Without the certainty of full federal-aid highway funding, many of these projects could be delayed until federal funds are in hand.”

The Alabama Department of Transportation reported that a lack of long-term funding would ripple through the state’s economy:

“The impacts of a short-term extension are not just project-related; it also increases labor, construction and material costs affecting ALDOT and its contractors, consultants, material suppliers and Alabama citizens who work for these businesses. Many of these businesses and employees are still struggling to recover from Covid-19-related effects, and the postponing of work a short-term extension generates is profound and unfortunate.”

Transportation funding almost expired

The Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in a bipartisan vote August 10.

But since it moved to the House, progressive Democrats have been using the bill as leverage to try to pass the Build Back Better Act. That bill started with a $3.5 trillion price tag that includes such things as pre-kindergarten, expanded health care coverage and environmental initiatives.

At the same time, almost every Republican in the House plans to vote against the infrastructure bill, despite 19 Republicans supporting it in the Senate. They call the infrastructure bill a “Trojan horse” to try to ram through the BBB Act.

As the political bickering and negotiations continue, state departments of transportation – and those who build roads and bridges – around the country were three days away from seeing federal transportation funding expire and 3,700 USDOT employees furloughed. That’s because a last-minute extension enacted earlier this month was set to end October 31.

“Legislators cannot continue granting extensions from month to month using funding estimates from the previous decade without causing uncertainty for workers and business owners in the communities they are elected to serve,” says National Asphalt Pavement Association President and CEO Audrey Copeland.

What’s next?

President Joe Biden and Democrats in the House and Senate continue to hammer out the details of the Build Back Better Act.

Biden scaled back the proposal Thursday from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion in the hopes of satisfying moderate Democrats while also keeping some of his priorities and getting the infrastructure bill to his desk.

Progressive Democrats still want the House to vote on the BBB Act and the infrastructure bill together. They also say they need to see the text of the reduced BBB Act before voting on it.

Congress now faces a December 3 deadline for federal transportation funding. That’s also when the federal debt ceiling needs to have been extended, or the government could default on its debt.

Congress is expected to return to session Monday.

The Associated General Contractors of America’s CEO, Stephen E. Sandherr, called on progressive Democrats and Republican leadership to consider the infrastructure bill outside the lens of partisan politics and think of its impact on an economy still emerging from the pandemic-induced slowdown.

“It is extremely disappointing that some progressive Democrats and the Republican leadership would again delay passage of a much-needed infrastructure bill,” Sandherr said. “This legislation will provide investments that will make our fragile supply chains more efficient while providing a needed boost to economic growth and employment levels.”