With the federal government again operating on a short-term, stopgap measure, some state departments of transportation are drawing up highway project bid lists for the spring construction season without being able to count on federal funds when they need them.
After a three-day agency shutdown that began Jan. 20, Congress extended funding for most government operations through Feb. 8 in its latest stopgap "continuing resolution" instead of passing appropriations for all of the 2018 fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
For state DOTs, that means they will be able to tap just three more weeks of their federal highway allocations at 2017 levels, once the Federal Highway Administration issues a formal notice for the additional obligation authority.
Jim Tymon, chief operating officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said state DOT's "continue to struggle" without a full year's funding.
Tymon said it is difficult for states to award project bids because they are only receiving their federal funds a few weeks at a time. As a result, he said, some transportation projects that should be awarded to contractors in December through February may be delayed and might not commence on time this spring.
John Schroer, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation and AASHTO's current president, told a Jan. 18 infrastructure summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that short-term federal funding extensions disrupt his state's planning.
Because Congress has not yet provided full-year federal transportation funds for 2018, he said, it delays when states can let contracts for construction projects. "We're fast approaching the time that we're going to lose, in Tennessee and across our country, the funding for our summer projects, which is when we do all our work," Schroer said.
Many state agencies prepare their coming-year's project lists in autumn and winter, and draw up bids lists to be ready to launch road and bridge improvements quickly once spring weather beckons. A number of states in northern climates also face very short construction seasons. In both cases, the lack of full-year federal funding by now can disrupt their plans and limit how much work they complete in 2018.
And since some DOTs are in "pay as you go" states that require them to have clear access to funds before awarding projects, or are struggling with such tight budgets that they cannot approve bids without the federal funds already available, they cannot simply move projects ahead with the expectation that Congress will eventually free up the money to reimburse them for work on federal-aid highways.
In addition, the short-term CR keeps program funding at 2017 levels, meaning that states are unable to use about $1 billion in additional 2018 federal highway funds that Congress authorized in 2015 when it passed the five-year Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act. Even if lawmakers, as expected, eventually complete a full-year budget and free up that increase, the delay could push some state projects out of the 2018 cycle.
States faced a similar series of stop-start funding constraints last year as Congress relied on CRs to pay for transportation and other programs until May 2017, when it completed a full-year budget bill more than seven months late.
Last March, David Bernhardt, commissioner of the Maine DOT and at that time AASHTO's president, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that CRs can delay needed infrastructure work.
"Continuing resolutions that provide only a portion of [federal funding] mean that even if we are ready to proceed with our much-needed projects, we can only commit federal dollars to a small portion of those projects," Bernhardt said. "Missing the construction window due to a less than full year obligation limitation can mean that some projects are delayed."
Also appearing at that hearing was Tymon, who told senators that although the FAST Act provided the transportation sector five years of predictable highway, transit and passenger rail funding levels, "that predictability is threatened" by the lack of a full-year appropriations bill.
"The predictability of a five-year authorization bill means little if Congress is unable to pass annual appropriations bills that are consistent with the authorized funding levels in the FAST Act," Tymon said.
Their comments followed a similar warning that month from South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Daugaard said his testimony also represented the views of transportation departments in nearby states of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
"We are frustrated," the governor said, "because while the federal government operates under a continuing resolution," states were limited to prior-year funding levels. He added that "we have a short construction season in South Dakota. So a funding delay of a few weeks can sometimes translate to a year's delay in delivering a project."
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