President Obama this morning urged federal lawmakers to extend the federal program that funds highways and transit when they return to Washington next week, arguing that if they fail to act, millions of workers could unnecessarily lose their jobs.
The program provides about $42.5 billion for highway projects and $10.3 billion for transit projects annually. That money is typically funneled to state and local governments who combine it with their own funds to construct the nation’s infrastructure. But the previous surface transportation law known as SAFETEA-LU, expired in 2009, and the country has operated on a series of short-term bills ever since. The current extension expires Sept. 30. If Congress fails to reach an agreement on another extension, 4,000 federal workers would be furloughed, and potentially millions of workers who build projects funded by the program would have to stop working too. “If we don’t extend this bill by the end of September, all of them will be out of a job, just because of politics in Washington,” Obama said. “That’s just not acceptable. It’s inexcusable.” The need for an extension comes at a time when the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House have released dueling outlines for a long-term surface transportation bill that have huge differences that some observers call insurmountable. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has outlined a two-year, $109 billion program, while Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is pitching a six-year, $230 billion bill. Putting pressure on the lawmakers is the fact that the Highway Trust Fund – the pot of money that funds the highway and transit program – is quickly drying up. Mica has presented his plan as the fiscally responsible choice, since it only spends what's available from the trust fun. And, he says, its longer time span will give state and local governments the ability to do long-term planning, since they’ll know exactly how much money is available going forward. But it’s a drastic decrease in funding compared to the approximate $48.8 billion spent annually under SAFETEA-LU. Critics say that as unemployment remains high and the nation's infrastructure continues to crumble, now isn't the time to be cutting back on those investments. Boxer’s bill is more robust, and some transportation advocates prefer the shorter-term bill because if the economy improves, more funding may become available when they revisit the issue in the near future. But lawmakers would need to find another $12 billion in funding for her proposal, since it allocated more money than what will be available in the trust fund. Obama’s own proposal – $556 billion over six years – is not being seriously considered and is viewed as too costly to gain traction in a Congress focused on deficit reduction. At this point, it would be almost impossible for a Mica-Boxer compromise bill to be signed into law before the existing authorization expires. With less than a month before the deadline, neither of the lawmakers has even released a bill. They’ve only outlined proposals. Also expiring Sept. 30 is the separate but related legislation that authorizes the federal gas tax. If that expires, the government will lose $100 million per day in revenue. In addition to calling for the extension, Obama said the federal government will work to identify high-priority infrastructure projects that have already been funded but are being delayed as they await permitting and reviews. He's directing agencies to expedite some of the projects. “There is work to be done. There are workers ready to do it," Obama said. "That’s why I expect Congress to act. Immediately." Typically, these types of extensions aren’t major events. But earlier this summer, Congress allowed the legislation that authorizes the Federal Aviation Administration to expire. That resulted in furloughs for about 4,000 federal employees and cost the government about $425 million in lost revenue, since the feds were temporarily barred from collecting taxes on airline tickets. Some transportation experts believe that if Congress was brazen enough to allow the FAA expire, lawmakers might be willing to play chicken with the transportation program too. Meanwhile, that FAA issue hasn’t been resolved. When Congress finally did extend the FAA legislation earlier this summer, it did so only through Sept. 16. That means Congress must reauthorize it yet again before that date, or the agency will close a second time. Obama urged Congress to hurry up with that extension and said it should also address back pay for federal workers who lost wages while furloughed. “At a time when a lot of people in Washington are talking about creating jobs, it’s time to stop the political gamesmanship that can actually cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Obama said.