By Dean Franks, senior vice president, congressional relations, ARTBA
The partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22, 2018, continues to hold Washington, D.C., in a vise grip with no immediate path toward resolution. While the impact of the stalemate impacting roughly 25 percent of federal discretionary spending is being widely reported by national and local media, the ramifications on federal highway investment remain a source of confusion and uncertainty.
A December 2018 “contingency plan” issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation states the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the core federal highway programs would remain operational in the event of a lapse in funding. This insulation stems from the fact that states are provided the authority to spend Highway Trust Fund (HTF) resources by multi-year reauthorization bills, such as 2015’s FAST Act, and the majority of FHWA operational funding—including employee salaries—derives from a percentage of annual trust fund expenditures.
Recent news stories and anecdotal reports, however, have implicated the government shutdown as the cause of highway project delays in several states.
The disconnect between FHWA’s status and project impacts stems from the overlap of the shutdown with states only being provided the first 12 weeks of FY 2019 highway funds due to the series of interim funding measures that have been put in place since the new federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, 2018. States routinely cite partial year funding as a complication in implementing annual transportation plans—the situation is particularly acute for states heavily dependent on federal support for their highway and bridge capital improvements.
Unfortunately, the sporadic distribution of authorized highway funds has become too common in recent years due to congressional delays in passing annual funding bills. While uncertainty about the timing of federal resources makes it difficult for some states to advance projects, this dynamic should not be solely attributed to the current government shutdown.
The FHWA Jan. 8 provided states with the authority to commit the remainder of their FY 2019 highway funds as authorized by the FAST Act. While this action should provide some clarity to states and reinforce the fact that the agency is not shut down, the FHWA will be subject to the requirements of any subsequent FY 2019 funding directives approved Congress and the President.
As such, ARTBA and our Transportation Construction Coalition allies continue to urge Congress to deliver an FY 2019 funding bill that fully adheres to the FAST Act’s highway and transit investment commitments and maximizes federal transportation investment as soon as possible.