Transportation advocates were gearing up for a big push to ensure that the federal surface transportation program did not expire at the end of the month, but in a remarkable show of common cause and swift action on Tuesday, the House unanimously approved a six-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, as well as a four-month extension of the authorizing legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Senate still has to pass this bill before it's final, but Harry Reid has promised to move it through quickly, leaving transportation advocates breathing a little easier.
The federal surface transportation bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU), which funds federal highway, safety, and transit programs, originally expired in 2009. Since then, rather than pass a new, long-term bill that reauthorizes these important programs and guarantees funding assistance for the thousands of active transportation projects around the country, Congress has passed seven short-term extensions, essentially kicking the can down the road. These Band-Aid extension solutions do not give states the funding assurances they need to complete major infrastructure projects that often span several years and provide hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs to American workers.
"I'm calling on Congress," said President Barack Obama on August 31st in a speech on the lawn of the Rose Garden, "as soon as they come back, to pass a clean extension of the surface transportation bill." Upon hearing this, many rolled their eyes. Advocates around the country were already beginning to set up the phone banks and prepare the advocacy letters we were going to send warning of the dire consequences of letting these programs shut down or waiting until the last minute to extend them. This time, our leaders did what was necessary to keep America moving forward with time to spare.
The bill, the Surface and Air Transportation Programs Extension Act of 2011, extends SAFETEA-LU through March and the FAA through January. Highway and transit programs would receive funding at fiscal year 2011 levels - $19.8 billion for highways and $4.2 billion for transit paid for out of the Highway Trust Fund. The FAA will receive about $5.4 billion. This is the eighth time SAFETEA-LU and the 22nd time the FAA bill have been extended.
After President Obama called for a clean extension on August 31st, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee promptly passed a clean extension of the surface transportation program on Thursday, September 8th, by Friday Rep. John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had agreed to move a combined extension of the surface transportation and aviation programs through the House, and on Tuesday, less than two weeks later, the House passed the bill. This is a fine example of Democrats and Republicans from both chambers of Congress working together to prevent a catastrophe.
"This isn't a time to bicker," Chairman Mica said, "This is a time to put people back to work."
The previous extension of SAFETEA-LU is set to expire on September 30th, at which time, if this bill, the latest extension, does not pass, the U.S. DOT will lose the authority to collect the federal gas tax, halting revenue into the Highway Trust Fund and spending on highway and transit projects around the country. According to a recent report by the Federal Transit Administration, if there is a lapse in the $51.5 billion in federal funds that support the nation's 135,000 and 5,600 active highway and transit projects, respectively, in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, nearly 850,000 jobs will be put in jeopardy during a time of already high unemployment in this country. The week prior to this FTA report, the U.S. DOT had released numbers that claimed over 1.8 million jobs would be at stake if Congress does not act to prevent the nation's highway and transit projects from shutting down. The FAA would also be forced to furlough thousands of workers if their funding expires (again).
It appears as though last month's FAA funding battle, which resulted in the furlough of 4,000 federal workers for two weeks and $30 million per day in uncollected taxes, embarrassed Congressional leaders, who are desperately trying to improve the public's perception of their ability to steer the country in the right direction. As Alex Goldmark at Transportation Nation wrote, "It also seems to have primed politicians for compromise."
While this deal averts the immediate crisis, it does little to solve the long-term issue of reauthorizing surface transportation and FAA legislation other than buy more time for the Senate to author their proposal and find common ground with the House. On this front, the two chambers are still very far apart between their two competing proposals. The House recently marked up and released a draft of their six-year bill, which would make drastic cuts to Amtrak and the federal High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program compared to FY 2011 levels. The Senate is still in the process of writing their two-year bill, which would largely maintain current spending levels.
Download the entire "Surface and Air Transportation Programs Extension Act of 2011'" (PDF)
Download the FTA's report, "The Impacts of Failing to Extend Surface Transportation Funding" (PDF)
Download a table created by the U.S. DOT that shows a state-by-state breakdown of job losses due to a shutdown of the nation's highway and transit projects (PDF)