Highway Trust Fund to Shut Down Monday

The opposite of progress is at it again:

The federal Highway Trust Fund will shut down first thing Monday, suspending all payments to state transportation departments, and four U.S. Department of Transportation agencies are expected to furlough employees beginning Tuesday after Congress was unable to reach an agreement this week on legislation to extend surface transportation authorization past its Sunday expiration date.

“No reimbursements to states for their share of federal highway funds, no vouchers they have submitted or will submit to the Federal Administration will be able to be paid beginning Monday, March 1,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-MN, told reporters on a conference call this afternoon. “The shutdown of the federal highway program means the Federal Highway Administration will not be able to reimburse states for any federal highway or transit funds.”

The immediate cause is the following:

Senate Democratic leaders kept the chamber in session until near midnight late Thursday night attempting to gain approval of the House’s one-month extension bill. However, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-KY, continued objecting to multiple requests to adopt the legislation by unanimous consent. Under Senate rules, all senators must concur to passing a bill without a formal debate or vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, said Bunning was the only senator who refused to agree to allow the bill to pass to buy Congress an additional month to work out an agreement on a longer-term extension.

Bunning said he objected because the extensions were not paid for. He proposed covering the bill’s $10.3 billion cost by rescinding unobligated balances from the recovery act, an amendment Reid declined to accept.

“I’ll be here as long as you’re here and as long as all those other senators are here and I’m going to object every time because you won’t pay for this and you propose never to pay for it,” Bunning said Thursday night. “We have a debt of $14 trillion. We can’t sustain it.”

This is one place where I profoundly disagree with many in my own party.  Transportation spending, especially if properly done, is an investment with productivity returns for our economy, and they in the long run pay for themselves.  This is more than one can say for most entitlement programs (which take such a large portion of our budget,) but even the Republicans are scared to take those on.

Beneath the surface, however, we have this problem:

In the House, Oberstar opposes the Senate’s 10-month authorization language because of three significant differences with what the House has approved.

Oberstar said in a statement issued last Friday that he has serious concerns regarding how the Senate’s version earmarks two discretionary highway categories so that four states (California, Illinois, Louisiana, and Washington state) receive 58 percent of the $932 million allocated and 22 states receive zero. The House version would allow the U.S. Department of Transportation to select projects to use the categories’ funds on a competitive basis based on merit. The two categories are Projects of National and Regional Significance and the National Corridor Infrastructure Improvement Program.

That could be driving much of this logjam.  It’s the same problem we saw in the health care debate.  Many state DOT’s have the reputation for serious politicisation of their road spending; if we start making this a habit on the federal level, we’re going to have serious problems.

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