Washington – The law that authorizes federal transportation spending in Connecticut and across the nation runs out at the end of the month, and the fund that pays for that spending is expected to go broke two months later, but Connecticut says it has funding in place for at least six months’ worth of projects if Congress fails to act in time to avert the looming crisis.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has warned governors there could be a sharp cutoff in transportation funds to the state after the end of July, when the transportation trust fund, which is filled partly with revenues collected through the federal gasoline tax, is being depleted.
The Federal Transit Administration has also warned the states that if Congress does not act on an authorization bill by May 31, no new money will be available for capital projects, essential maintenance, or operational support. Existing projects can continue if the state has money to keep them going.
Connecticut may be in a better position to handle the storm because it has taken a conservative approach to funding transportation projects, said Donald Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association.
“We’ve been critical that their funding is not aggressive enough, but their conservative approach is paying off in this instance,” Shubert said.
Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart said, “We have all funding in place for current projects for at least the next six months.”
Like most states, Connecticut counts on the federal government for the lion’s share of transportation dollars.
That money has drifted down from the $633 million the state received in 2010 to about $603 million last year.
A Pew Charitable Trust report released last fall showed the state is more reliant than most others on money from Washington for its transportation projects, and federal transportation dollars are a hugely important part of the state’s budget, especially since Gov. Dannel Malloy has committed to boosting state transportation spending.
“We are counting on having common sense prevail in Congress and getting a funding bill passed — preferably a long-term bill,” Everhart said.
Nearly all lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, want a long-term solution.
But they are struggling even to find a shot-term fix.
An effort by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the head of the Way and Means Committee, to find $10 billion to replenish the highway trust fund until the end of the year seemed to falter Friday, when Ryan announced he would propose instead a two-month authorization bill to allow transportation spending to continue until the trust fund runs out of money at the end of July.
“It was our preference to move an extension through the end of the year, but we will need more time to reach a bipartisan agreement on offsets,” Ryan said in a joint statement with Rep. Bill Schuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House transportation committee. “This legislation will allow transportation spending to continue through July, while we work towards a next step to close the Trust Fund’s shortfall.”
But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, does not know if she will vote for the short-term bill.
“I don’t know what the proposal is going to be,” DeLauro said of the latest short-term plan. “But I believe we should be voting on a long-term bill.”
The last major transportation bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005. Since it expired in 2009, transportation funding has been authorized through about a dozen short-term bills.
Two days before Ryan and Schuster announced their latest plan, Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and John Larson, D-1st District, signed a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that said they would not vote for another short-term fix.
“Enough is enough,” the letter said. “America cannot afford to have Congress kick the can down the road while our roads and bridges continue to crumble and workers remain idle…America needs a stable Highway Trust Fund. It is the job of Congress to provide it.”
Dereliction of Duty
The reason the trust fund is going broke is that about half of the trust fund’s money comes from a federal gas tax, now about 18.4 cents a gallon, that hasn’t been increased since 1993. Meanwhile, Americans are driving less and cars are more fuel efficient, while the cost of building roads and highways has gone up.
Several proposals have been tendered to find new sources of revenue to fill the fund.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, has proposed raising the tax 12 cents a gallon over two years. But the White House, and GOP leaders sensitive to those Republicans who have taken a pledge not to raise taxes, have rejected the idea.
States, meanwhile, continued to increase their gas taxes to raise money for transportation and other things.
President Obama has proposed a one-time tax on the revenues U.S. companies earn overseas to replenish the trust fund, but the plan has been largely ignored by Congress.
Shubert of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association said he backed Murphy’s proposal.
“He’s right on the money,” he said
Shubert said the president’s idea would not provide a permanent and reliable new stream of transportation funding.
“We are hoping for a real path for a long-term bill, and we don’t care if it takes two months or six months,” he said.
Meanwhile, the White House is putting pressure on Congress not to leave town Friday for the week-long Memorial Day break without addressing the transportation crisis.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz charged that it would be a “dereliction of responsibility” for lawmakers to return to their districts without approving the legislation. “