By Dean Franks, vice president of congressional affairs, ARTBA

The Senate has begun debate on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill, which, if enacted, would allow for spending on transportation and housing programs.  The federal highway program spending levels are frozen at FY 2014 levels, given the government is currently operating under its fourth extension of MAP-21, which expired Sept. 30, 2014.  Once a new surface transportation authorization bill is enacted, which could come as soon as the first week of December, appropriations levels will be adjusted accordingly.  Airport capital spending levels are in a similar situation, as federal aviation programs are currently operating under a six-month extension, meaning spending levels will remain the same as FY 2015.

Because of the two-year budget agreement congressional leaders struck with President Obama prior to the departure of former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), new money became available for certain general fund programs, including mass transit capital, or New Starts, program and the TIGER grant program.  The New Starts program would receive $1.9 billion – over $300 million more than originally proposed by THUD subcommittee when it passed out of the full Senate appropriations committee earlier this year – but still about $200 million short of the FY 2015 spending level.  The TIGER grant program gets a boost of $100 million over the previous year, for a total of $600 million for the multimodal grant program with projects chosen by the administration.

The Senate plan does not include many policy changes, but does prevent funds being used for the Obama Administration’s initiatives to allow states to impose geographic, economic and other hiring preferences on federal-aid highway and transit contracts unless the state or local government certifies: a sufficient qualified labor pool exists in the jurisdiction; no jobs of existing employees are displaced; and any associated cost increase would not lead to delays in transportation plans.

ARTBA and AGC of America sought this provision throughout the process and continue working towards ensuring it remains in the final bill signed by the President, likely in December.

While the Senate may debate and pass the THUD bill this week, it is unlikely to be enacted into law as a standalone measure, as House and Senate negotiators are currently working behind the scenes on a government-wide spending bill that will very likely be passed and signed into law in December and run through Sept. 30, 2016.