Nearly $770 million in federal transportation money will soon be flowing again after Congress ended a two-day impasse that had suspended federal funding to state governments for infrastructure projects.
The logjam was broken late Tuesday night after Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) withdrew his opposition to a multibillion dollar jobs bill that extended unemployment benefits for 30 days and reauthorized the federal highway program for the same time frame.
Bunning had blocked consideration of the legislation unless the funding mechanism came from existing monies and not from new spending. Bunning relented amid enormous public backlash and after members of his own party pleaded with him to end his fight against the bill.
The highway program, known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), has been surviving since September on a series of 30-day extensions. Congress's failure to extend the program beyond its latest Feb. 28 expiration date meant the federal government could not reimburse states for ongoing federal-aid projects and could not approve any new projects. About $768 million in highway funds earmarked to the states stood to be lost if Congress hadn't reauthorized the program by Friday.
In a statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the Senate's action meant that critical highway agencies could re-open for business Wednesday and that 2,000 furloughed DOT employees could return to work.
The funding freeze also led to the effective shutdown of the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The American Trucking Associations warned on Tuesday that the cut-off of funding for the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program, which provides grants to states to conduct roadside inspections of commercial trucks and buses, could compromise highway safety.
Efforts in Congress are under way to pass a multi-year extension of the highway program, but few expect a bill to reach the president's desk until at least 2011, if then.