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Jobs bill roadblock threatens highway projects

By Paul Snyder

Contractors are waiting for Congress to make a move after lawmakers failed to pass a bill extending financing for highway construction that left projects suspended throughout the country.

The bill would prevent an $11.1 billion reduction in the nationwide highway program. Wisconsin is estimated to have $200.7 million at stake.

“The situation is bad,” said Larry Brown, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “I would’ve never thought we’d be in the predicament we’re in right now.”

Congress was unable to meet a Sunday deadline to extend transportation financing. Obama administration officials blamed the missed deadline on a decision by U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., to block a vote.

The missed deadline meant thousands of federal transportation workers on Monday were placed on furlough until Congress approves an extension for the transportation program, Brown said. It also meant many projects receiving federal money were put on hold.

The federal transportation spending law expired in September, and Congress, without a bill that would commit money to the transportation budget, has approved extensions to keep existing programs operating, said Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association. Without those extensions, he said, the Federal Highway Administration would not have the money it should have to pay for projects and staffing.

A jobs bill containing an extension of transportation financing, Traas said, would transfer $19.5 billion to the U.S. general trust budget to bolster spending for the federal highway program.

“As of right now, states aren’t getting reimbursed for the work they’re doing,” he said. “Any project that has Highway Trust Fund money going toward it is dead in the water right now.”

Wisconsin Department of Transportation representatives did not return calls before deadline to comment on projects in the state that are affected.

Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said that in the wake of the missed deadline, it is difficult to get a handle on the depth of the problem.

“We’re all in that boat,” he said.

Turmail provided a list he received of 41 projects that would be affected by the federal furloughs. No Wisconsin projects were on the list.

Stimulus projects still can go forward because they are financed through the U.S. government’s general budget, rather than through the transportation budget, Brown said. But projects awaiting federal approval or reimbursement might have to wait because highway administration staff members are on furlough and cannot immediately process the work.

Turmail said some highway projects in Washington, D.C., have been suspended because federal inspectors cannot be paid to monitor work on construction sites.

“Some states might try finding temporary cash to float the program until Congress has some kind of fix in place,” he said. “Then again, most states probably don’t have a lot of extra cash laying around right now.”

Wisconsin’s transportation budget has a $30 million deficit.

But the financing roadblock might not last long. Brown said the U.S. House of Representatives could vote as early as Tuesday on a Senate-approved version of the jobs bill that would provide a 30-day extension of the federal government’s transportation financing program. If that bill passes Tuesday, he said, it could be signed by Wednesday, and federal employees could be back Thursday.

Traas said he expects Congress to agree on the 30-day extension, but that does not solve the problem.

“I have a hard time believing they’re just going to stop the federal highway program,” he said. “But the issue now is: Are we going to provide long-term stability or just limp from extension to extension?”

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