SALEM — Despite the latest congressional dispute over an extension of federal highway spending, Oregon Department of Transportation officials anticipate they will have enough cash on hand to continue current construction projects.
But an ODOT official says there is no guarantee for future projects unless Congress passes a longer-term spending authorization bill, which has not been the case since the last law expired in 2009. The latest federal highway spending extension, the 33rd since 2009, expires July 31 after just two months.
“I cannot envision a scenario in which Congress lets this lapse. Both sides have indicated this (extension) is a high priority to get done by the end of the month,” said Trevor Sleeman, ODOT’s federal affairs adviser.
“But if there is a lapse of a few days or even a couple of weeks, we will have enough state resources on hand to weather it,” he said. “Essentially we float a loan to the federal government until Congress is able to pass something and reimburse us for the projects underway.”
ODOT is highly dependent on federal funds for construction projects, because state funds from fuel taxes and vehicle and licensing fees go toward highway and bridge maintenance, operations and debt repayments.
The current ODOT budget for the two-year cycle that started July 1 assumes $110.2 million of federal funds.
“This sort of limping along has already changed the way we do our long-term business,” Sleeman said.
The Federal Highway Administration requires states to maintain long-term construction plans. Oregon has a four-year State Transportation Improvement Program, which normally is updated every two years.
Sleeman said the most recent update was three years ago.
Without a longer-term authorization, ODOT cannot guarantee federal funds for highway projects scheduled in 2016 or later.
The House and Senate appear headed in different directions on federal highway spending.
The House voted, 312-119, on Wednesday to extend highway spending until Dec. 18.
Oregon’s five members split their votes. Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Hood River and Democratic Reps. Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton and Peter DeFazio of Springfield voted yes.
But Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Portland and Kurt Schrader of Canby voted no. Both said it’s time Congress approve a full six-year extension.
“A year ago today, the House passed an extension to give us enough time to find a long-term solution. And yet, we did nothing,” Blumenauer said in a statement after the vote. “… It is time for Congress to face reality. Congress needs to return to regular order, address this problem head-on, and find a dedicated, long-term solution to transportation funding.”
Blumenauer has introduced bills to increase the federal gasoline tax by 15 cents per gallon over three years — the current tax, which dates to 1993, is 18.4 cents — and to authorize studies of road usage fees similar to what Oregon has just launched.
Schrader expressed similar views in his statement.
“Our states and private-sector stakeholders are desperately asking for a long-term, bipartisan compromise that shores up the Highway Trust Fund and gives them the assurances they need to repair and improve our country’s aging infrastructure and we are ignoring them yet again,” he said. “I’m again at a loss for how truly disappointing this bill is. Our constituents deserve better and we cannot continue to govern from crisis to crisis and avoid deadlines.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has approved a six-year extension. A potential fallback position is a shorter extension through the November 2016 election.
One of the “yes” votes was cast by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
“I’m pleased that the committee has passed a bill to make sure that vital transportation infrastructure projects continue and workers stay on the job,” he said in a statement.
ODOT’s Sleeman said that while the outcome of the current dispute is uncertain, the House’s five-month extension may prevail because the House plans to start its summer recess July 30, ahead of the Senate’s Aug. 7 recess.