President Trump and congressional leaders from both political parties agreed to extend current fiscal 2017 spending levels past Sept. 30 to Dec. 8, avoiding a government shutdown over agency funding but delaying at least until that time the scheduled fiscal 2018 increase in federal highway funding.
They also agreed to package the government funding extension with a temporary suspension of the federal debt limit, averting two potential end-of-September risks, plus additional disaster relief funding after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas and as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida.
The House and Senate initially passed different versions, but the House on Sept. 8 completed work on the package by agreeing to the Senate-passed measure, which included $15.25 billion in disaster aid plus the funding extension and debt-limit suspension.
But the cost of the deal for state departments of transportation will be a delay in receiving access to about $1 billion in additional highway funding that was due to take effect with the Oct. 1 start of the new federal budget year, although the state agencies will continue to receive their highway formula funding at past-year levels.
For some DOTs that draw up their coming-year project and bid lists each autumn, or that operate under state laws that only allow them to count on fully approved funding streams, the delay of the scheduled funding hike to Dec. 8 could also end up delaying planned 2018 road and bridge projects.
And since there is no guarantee that Congress will be able to produce a final full-year 2018 government bill by then, state DOTs could find themselves waiting even longer if lawmakers in Washington push their budget talks into January or beyond.
The Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, which Congress passed in December 2015, authorized and paid for five years of modest annual increases in highway program funding, starting on Oct. 1 of 2016 subject to Congress also passing the required annual appropriations bill by then. But lawmakers often are not ready to fund all government agencies by that deadline, and did not finally appropriate the first year of FAST Act increases until this past April.
The FAST Act also allowed annual increases in transit program funding out of the Highway Trust Fund for most years, but it held 2018 levels steady with 2017 transit funding. So the delayed increase this year will only affect the highway program.
This delay comes at a time when state DOTs and other transportation stakeholders were already absorbing delays in other federal funding programs.
The Trump administration only this week began taking applications for $500 million in 2017 TIGER infrastructure grants, which means the resulting awards won't go out until fiscal 2018 is well under way.
Earlier, the USDOT also repackaged and delayed about $700 million of this year's allotment of the FAST Act's annual grants for freight-related highway projects of regional or national significance. Now, they are combined with 2018 grants and applications are not due until Nov. 2, so any final grant decisions are still months away.
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The broad infrastructure proposal unveiled July 23 on Capitol Hill by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also serves to underscore a long-running debate over how to return the Highway Trust Fund to solvency.
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