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Federal shutdown delays some state road, bridge contracts

By SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Uncertainty over federal money for transportation projects amid a partial government shutdown is forcing some states to delay contracts for new road and bridge work.

Transportation officials in Oklahoma announced plans this week to delay bids on 45 highway projects worth about $137 million.

“This will affect only new projects that we haven’t (bid) yet,” said Terri Angier, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. “Unless they reach a resolution that includes the budget and authorizes us more money to put toward the projects, we can’t add new projects.”

In January, the agency will be delaying bids on 26 projects, with an estimated cost of about $101 million, and, in February, on an additional 19 projects, with an estimated cost of about $35.6 million, she said.

The postponements are stopping short, though, of affecting highway and bridge projects that are already underway. The disruption will instead only hit projects for which transportation departments were going to award contracts in coming weeks. Still, a lot of bidding is expected to be put on hold, especially in states that receive a large share of their highway money from the federal government. As a result, construction projects will be pushed off by months or even into next year.

Officials in some states say they are starting to see consequences of the shutdown. Federal agencies that are often involved in approving transportation projects, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have been closed for days and thus unable to act.

“The longer these delays continue, the more likely it becomes that projects will not meet their planned (contracting) dates,” said Darin Bergquist, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Transportation.

States that receive a large percentage of their road and bridge money from the federal government should be particularly concerned, said Tony Dorsey, of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in Washington, D.C.

“It’s just simple math,” Dorsey said. “If you have a big chunk of your funding coming from the feds and you’ve got a partial government shutdown affecting that funding, you might be less inclined to move forward with these major projects.”

The association says some states, including Montana, New Mexico and Rhode Island, receive more than 85 percent of their transportation money from federal sources. Transportation officials in those states, though, said the federal shutdown has yet to lead to delays.

At a meeting on Thursday, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission is expected to approve bids for 24 projects, at a cost of about $60 million. The state agency, which has a $700 million balance, is pressing forward with planned projects despite the current uncertainty over federal money.

“We maintain a cash balance that allows us to handle these types of situations, and some states do not,” said Bob Brendel, a spokesman for the Missouri transportation department.

Even if an agreement is reached soon, the delays in Oklahoma could be exacerbated by environmental and weather concerns. Projects could then end up being delayed even longer than now expected, said Angier.

As an example, she said, take work on Oklohama bridges. That sort of work, Angier said, is prohibited during nesting season for cliff swallows, a protected type of bird that frequently makes its home on the underside of bridges. That season runs from March to September.

Angier such considerations could greatly delay long-planned work on a bridge over Interstate 35 south of Oklahoma City.

“If we don’t let this project, it’s not just delaying it for a few months,” Angier said. “It could be a year before we could get back to that project.”

Local officials are dismayed that the $9.3 million project meant to improve on- and off-ramps leading to and from the I-35 bridge is likely to be delayed.

“My best guess would be 400 vehicles a day cross that bridge, including school buses, mail trucks, oil industry trucks,” said Wilson Lyles, McClain County Commissioner. “That project would definitely make it safer for the motoring public.”

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