Pick your culprit for why the current extension of the SAFETEA-LU highway funding bill was allowed to expire without reauthorization last night—U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) or the House of Representatives collectively. Regardless of whoever ultimately gets the blame—or the credit when the issue is fixed via legislation-- the upshot for now is that both federal safety enforcement of the trucking industry and ongoing highway projects in many states have been disrupted.
Bunning is on the hot seat for preventing the Senate via a parliamentary maneuver from considering the extension bill. Bunning has demanded that before he will take his hold off, offsetting spending cuts must be included in the underlying legislation so as to cut deficit spending. On the other hand, the House could take up and vote on the Senate-passed “Jobs Bill” AKA the HIRE Act and send it to the President for signing.
For his part, Secy. of Transportation Ray LaHood placed the blame squarely on Bunning in statements released this morning. “I am sorry to report that DOT will furlough nearly 2,000 employees without pay Monday,” stated LaHood. “I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country. This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed.
“This means DOT must temporarily shut down highway reimbursements to states worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” LaHood stated. “This means we must temporarily shut down national anti-drunk driving efforts. And this means we must shut down construction projects across the country… And when those projects shut down, and the states don't get their highway reimbursements, what will happen then?”
LaHood went on to say that “we came to this…because one Senator blocked the extension of the Highway Trust Fund. And not just the Highway Trust Fund extension. Other provisions in the same legislation would have covered tax credits for health coverage and unemployment.”
Regardless of whoever ultimately gets the blame—or the credit if the issue is resolved via Senate or House legislation-- the upshot for now is that the federal safety enforcement of the trucking industry could be halted and the funding of ongoing highway projects in many states has already been disrupted.
And unless this already “old” issue of highway bill reauthorization is resolved within days or perhaps a week or two at most, the negative ripple effect – especially on highway repairs and construction— conceivably could be felt by fleet owners and the motoring public in general for years to come.
"It's a shame that we have to go through this," Steve Keppler, interim executive director for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), told FleetOwner. "Safety is about as critical a government service as there is, so we hope Congress can in the end solve this quickly."
According to Kepler, FMCSA provides roughly $2 million a day to the states to directly fund truck and bus enforcement efforts. He said that it is expected-- at least for the time being-- thatstates will be allowed to continue incurring expenses for enforcement efforts.
FMCSA also has teams of inspectors conducting compliance reviews and safety audits with fleet directly. Since they are considered critical personnel, some -- but not all -- of those federal employees should be able to continue their work despite the funding stoppage, said Keppler.
An American Trucking Assns. (ATA) spokesperson told FleetOwner that at this juncture “it is “hard to speculate how [the funding stall] will affect safety enforcement in each state. State DOTs handle a lot of these programs and so we don’t know exactly how [funds for them are disbursed].”
CVSA’s Keppler said the funding cutoff shouldn't affect commercial vehicle safety enforcement efforts too much “at the moment,” however, the longer it continues, more issues will develop.
"If this funding gap exists for only a few days, there won't be a major impact on enforcement activities at the state level, but if it extends longer than that we'll have problems," Keppler stressed. "States are already in difficult economic times and this [funding cutoff] is hard to swallow for a lot of folks."
A phone call seeking direct comment from FMCSA on the impact of the mandatory DOT furlough on safety enforcement has not yet been returned.
When it comes to road repair and construction, many projects funded and managed by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation —usually those on federal lands—ground to a halt this morning when DOT workers were sent home on furlough.
While those projects will start up again as soon as funding is restored, there is a greater concern held by highway advocates that cash-strapped States may cancel planned roadwork and transit projects if they fear federal funding may not be in offing within the very near future.
“While projects the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) contracts to build directly have already been shut down today because FHA [jobsite] inspectors have been furloughed, the bigger concern is whether state projects funded by federal transportation funds will slow down or stop altogether” if this impasse continues, Brian Deery, sr dir. of highway & transportation div. for the trade group Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), told FleetOwner.
“The States are essentially stuck in the middle when it comes to highway funding,” Deery continued. He explained that the States have to know that federal funds are in the offing befoe they can sign off on highway and other transportation projects.
"When Congress failed to enact a new surface transportation authorization six months ago they left state DOTs, many of whom were already stretched to the limit, in a very precarious position,” said Blaine Leonard, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). “Now that the latest extension is set to expire, they have yet again dropped the ball.”