Congress' Foot-Dragging Slows Road Building
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
Jack Lettiere, New Jersey's transportation commissioner, was on his way to Washington, D.C., last week when he got a call on his cell phone delivering bad news: A top-priority, $28 million road project was put on hold at the last moment because of a lack of federal funds.
Road construction money had run out because Congress has taken nearly two years to renew a highway funding bill. "How many transportation secretaries have gotten that call over the last 30 days?" he asked at a Capitol Hill press conference June 16. "This is serious business."
As the prime summer road-construction season gears up, state and local road planners are freezing projects or putting off plans as they wait for Congress to dole out highway dollars. The last federal roads bill expired in September 2003, and Congress temporarily has extended the act seven times since then. The latest extension will expire June 30, and few expect federal lawmakers to come to an agreement by then.
The national transportation legislation sets spending levels for road and bridge construction on the nation's 4 million miles of public roads and accounts for nearly a quarter of the country's transportation dollars. The act also pays for rail construction and highway safety programs to encourage seat-belt use and discourage drunken driving. About 87 percent of the money comes from federal gas taxes collected in the states.
While federal money continues to flow at two-year-old levels, the stagnant funding has forced 18 states to delay highway projects totaling $2.1 billion that would have employed 90,000 workers, according a report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Delayed projects include a three-year, $50 million bridge replacement in North Dakota and two new bridges spanning the Mississippi River in Missouri.
Construction slated to start two years ago will cost much more now, said Flagstaff, Ariz., Mayor Joseph Donaldson, who represented the National League of Cities at the press conference. "What our federal elected leaders do not seem to appreciate is that short-term extensions are costing taxpayers money and patience," he said.
The federal foot-dragging has deprived Michigan of an estimated $594 million in extra highway funds, based on funding levels in a failed 2003 U.S. Senate highway bill, according to the state's Department of Transportation (DOT). Congress' delay has forced Michigan and other states to shift money from new construction to basic road maintenance, said Ben Korhman, a spokesman for the Michigan DOT. "Every time they extend the old bill, it puts pressure on us and shortens our planning horizon," he said.
Like Michigan, New Jersey keeps a running tally of federal highway money that would have flowed to the state on the transportation department's Web site. The Garden State estimates it has lost $752,000 each day since the last federal highway bill expired, totaling more than $473 million.
Even if Congress approves more road-building money by June 30, cold-climate states such as Utah will have to delay new projects until next spring and summer because of the short construction season, said Nile Easton, a spokesman for Utah's DOT.
But the highway bill is not expected to make it to President Bush's desk before the June deadline. Among other issues, congressional negotiators must resolve an $11 billion difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill. And the president has vowed to veto the more expensive Senate version, which would cost $295 billion.