Congress avoided a government shutdown while continuing to negotiate on a long-delayed 2017 budget, but approved a further one-week extension of 2016 spending levels to May 5 to give lawmakers more time to pin down an agreement for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Top appropriators said those negotiations had brought both parties close to a wide-ranging budget deal to fully fund agencies through September, but that they needed more time to complete work on various issues.
The House voted 382 to 30 the morning of April 28 – the same day funding was set to expire – for the short extension, and the Senate followed soon after by voice vote to send the measure to President Trump for his signature to keep government funded.
That additional one-week continuing resolution or CR, however, also continued to prevent state departments of transportation from getting their scheduled increases in highway and transit funding.
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 authorized and fully funded moderate increases each year through 2020 for programs in the Highway Trust Fund. However, the CRs that have held government spending to 2016 levels for seven months also kept DOTs and transit agencies from accessing hundreds of millions of dollars in scheduled funding hikes so far this year.
Some governors and state DOT officials have told congressional panels that the delays in tapping those extra funds could wind up pushing planned projects off their 2017 bid lists, especially for cash-strapped states in cold climates that have short construction seasons.
As earlier reported, states are waiting for about $1 billion in increased highway funding for 2017, while transit agencies would receive nearly $400 million more when this year’s increases take effect.
The industry is also waiting to see what Congress does about the USDOT’s infrastructure grant program called TIGER, which lawmakers have in recent years funded at $500 million. The department has used it to support a wide range of highway, transit, port, freight rail and other projects. President Trump has proposed eliminating the program.
In addition, the FAST Act provided for $199 million in funding, only in 2017, to help some railroads deploy costly collision-avoidance systems, and until Congress completes a budget the USDOT cannot begin releasing that money.
While news reports strongly indicated that a full budget accord is within reach for the remaining five months of fiscal 2017, threats to such an outcome had continued to emerge in days before the deadline over such hot issues as healthcare and a border wall.
So state DOTs, transit agencies and other stakeholders are in wait-and-see mode until Congress votes for a full-year appropriation measure and the president signs it into law.