After truckloads of political wrangling on Capitol Hill, both the House and Senate have approved a 90-day extension of the current federal highway and public transportation programs. The legislation has been sent to President Obama for signing.

The President will need to sign the 90-day extension before 11:59 pm on Saturday and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has indicated he will do so, noted a Politico.com Morning Transportation post. "While it is critical that we not put American jobs and safety at risk and hurt our economic recovery by allowing funding to run out, it is not enough for us to continue to patch together our nation's infrastructure future with short-term Band-Aids,” said Carney per Politico.com. “... As soon as the House gets back to work, they should do their part and pass that bill in similarly bipartisan fashion."
 

What the House voted on was a temporary 90-day "clean" extension (H.R. 4281) before adjourning for a two-week Easter recess.  According to transportation consultant Ken Orski, 37 Democrats joined 229 Republicans in adopting the extension, “which left the Senate with little choice but to go along or risk being blamed for closing down the transportation program. In the Senate, the extension was adopted by a voice vote.   

While three months is better than a two or a one or none, passing this extension still leaves the prospects for passage of a long-term reauthorization of the Surface Transportation bill very much op in the air—especially during a crucial election year for both parties.

The Senate back on March 14, by a vote of 74-22, passed an 18-month highway bill (S. 1813). But that bill, Orski pointed out in his latest Innovation NewsBrief,  was never popular among House Republicans and it became less so “when the full extent of the budgetary maneuvers employed by the Senate leadership became known.”

According to Orski, one of the most egregious examples was their use of a "Manager's Amendment" to insert  into the bill shortly before the final vote a provision transferring $5 billion in general funds without offering an immediate offset (Sec. 40313 of the Manager's Amendment). “This provision, buried in the 221-page amendment, was adopted-- probably unread by most Senators-- by unanimous consent without debate,” he noted.

Then there’s the matter of a long-term House bill. The 90 days should give Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) some time to get his ducks in a row to move forward with House legislation. Per Orski, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee still maintains that the goal of the GOP is to pass the five-year $260 billion bill (H.R. 7) that came out of his committee. Orski noted the legislation “contains many of the same reforms sought by the Senate and is eminently negotiable in the opinion of some observers, especially if the House leadership agrees to shorten the term of the bill from five, to say, three years.”

Politico.com noted that Rep. Mica put a positive spin on the delay in passing a long-term bill. He told the website’s Morning Transportation that: “The interesting thing about this whole process and the delay is it’s educated [new House] Members because they didn’t understand the consequences of various proposals, and I think that’s becoming very clear. So you hear everybody saying now we need as long a term bill as possible.”

No matter anyone’s politics or ignorance about surface-transportation issues, the bottom line is really whether Members of the House will have the political stomach to debate and pass a major, multi-year highway bill with election campaigns in full swing by the time they return from their Easter recess.

If not, then no doubt there will be further extensions passed at least until the next Congress is seated.

That uncertainty of course does not sit well with industry stakeholders. For example, a statement released this morning by the co-chairs of the Transportation Construction Coalition--  T. Peter Ruane, president & CEO, American Road & Transportation Builders Assn. and Stephen Sandherr, CEO, Associated General Contractors of America—contended that “extension after extension of these programs is no substitute for a multi-year reauthorization that could begin to address the nation’s staggering infrastructure challenges.

“The current surface transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, expired more than 910 days ago,” the statement continued. “We respect the legislative process and the right of both the House and Senate to pass their own bill. With an overwhelming bipartisan majority, the Senate has passed its multi-year bill. It is now the responsibility of the House of Representatives to either advance its own alternative or utilize another mechanism to allow the two chambers to reconcile their differences.”

The co-chairs also stated that: “While we supported the extension approved today to prevent a shutdown of essential infrastructure improvements across the nation, that support should not be confused as acceptance of inaction on a multi-year reauthorization bill. Our members are growing increasingly frustrated that Congress seems incapable of passing critical legislation that improves the flow of commerce and promotes economic growth… The federal highway and public transportation programs have been governed by extension for 30 months. Congress can and must do better.”