New funding for all U.S. surface transportation programs ground to a halt today after Congress failed on Sunday to extend for 30 more days legislation authorizing the disbursement to states of $768 million in money from the federal highway trust fund.
Congress's inability to reauthorize the current program—known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act - A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)—beyond its Feb. 28 expiration date has also led to the furlough of 2,000 government employees, including those who work at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, sub-agencies of the Department of Transportation.
Under federal guidelines, the FHWA reimburses states for funds they commit to undertake highway-related infrastructure projects. However, the federal government cannot act without reauthorization of the law that provides the funds for reimbursements. The funding affected by yesterday's actions would be monies set to be disbursed through March 5.
The shutdown came after Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) blocked Senate action on a multi-billion dollar jobs bill that would have provided tax credits to workers enrolled in stopgap health insurance programs, extended jobless benefits for unemployed citizens, and allowed for a short-term extension of the trust fund. Bunning has said he wants funding for the jobs bill to come from existing federal stimulus funds and not through new spending that would add billions to the federal deficit.
The trust fund has been surviving on a series of continuing resolutions that have extended the authority for short-term periods. Congress is working toward a multi-year reauthorization of the trust fund, but those efforts are not expected to bear fruit until at least 2011.
Reaction to the shutdown was swift and sharp. "As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement today. "This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed."
LaHood said ongoing work on programs that address texting while driving by commercial truck and bus drivers, the use of electronic onboard recorders, and the regulation of hours of service for commercial drivers has been suspended due to lack of funds and manpower.
In a statement issued on Friday prior to the program's shutdown, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business trade group, said it was "deeply disappointed" that Congress could not agree on an extension.
The chamber urged Congress to extend the trust fund at fiscal year 2009 appropriations levels through the end of the calendar year. "We call on Congress to pass legislation to achieve this long-term extension and send it to the president's desk as soon as possible. The shutdown of the Federal Highway Program means that thousands of jobs are at risk."