Congress approved a temporary extension for surface transportation programs last week, avoiding another impasse. That action shores up federal highway funding through next April.
Congress has been paying for road projects through a series of continuing resolutions for the past two years, ever since the previous SAFETEA-LU law expired. The two sides have made little progress in reaching a long-term solution.
Republicans want a six-year $235 billion bill, but Democrats support a two-year $109 billion bill that spends more each year.
The process has been frustrating for South Carolina transportation officials, who support the stability of a six-year plan, but are also attracted by higher funding in the Democratic plan. What they don’t like are the continuing resolutions.
“It cuts down on our planning and doesn’t allow us to go out into the future as far as what pots of money are going to be there for sure,” said J. Craig Forrest, who serves on the South Carolina Transportation Commission.
He said the renewed authorization was critical because it allows the federal government to continue collecting gas tax revenue (the main source of highway funds). The deadline had been September 30.
The House approved the temporary deal earlier in the week, but the Senate got bogged after one Republican– Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) objected to a requirement that 10 percent of transportation funding go towards “enhancements” — which includes beautifications projects like sidewalks and landscaping.
The Oklahoma senator wanted states to have the power to opt out of the “enhancements” requirement. But Senate Leader Harry Reid rebuffed him, saying it was too close to the deadline to begin debate. “For most Americans, (bike paths) are absolutely important,” he said, “It’s good for purposes of allowing people to travel without burning all the fossil fuel on the highways.”
However, Coburn pointed out it was also going towards a “white squirrel observation deck” and transportation museums. “If we’re going to extend the [highways] bill, then let’s let states use the money to repair bridges and highways, not build scenic and sound walls and make things look nice,” he said.
Coburn eventually dropped his hold, reportedly in exchange for a promise that any long-term deal would include the opt-out provision. The bill passed the Senate 92-6, with South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham voting for and Jim DeMint against. It passed the House by a voice vote.
Forrest said transportation officials have been frustrated by more than two years of short-term deals. “It’s something we’ve got to live with, but I just want them to get together and pass a six-year bill.”
But, he added, “The six-month extension is better than nothing at all.”