The passage this week of a three-month extension of current highway funding by a vote of 335 to 85 in the U.S. House of Representatives must now be reconciled with an 18-month extension wending its way out of committee in the U.S. Senate. That, say political observers, may prove far easier said than done.

“There is an awful lot at stake here, and we’ve got to continue our efforts to elevate freight [needs] to a higher level in the debate over the reauthorization bill,” said Joni Casey, president & CEO of the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA), in a recent press conference addressing the transportation industry’s concern over merely extending current highway funding. “It’s important for Congress to act now on the [reauthorization] bill and not revert to stop-gap funding.”

The Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee approved by 18-1 an 18-month extension of federal highway programs back in July that would push out reauthorization efforts out until at least March 2011. Neither the Senate nor the House extension efforts make any policy changes or add any new highway projects.

The current six-year highway bill – dubbed “SAFETEA-LU” which stands for “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users” – expires next week on Sept. 30. Though the White House supports the longer-term extension, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, led by chairman Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), is not taking the administration's lead on the subject.

Postponing debate on the 2009 Surface Transportation Bill – which could total as much as $500 billion – until well into 2011, is simply not an option, Oberstar said in remarks earlier this year.

“Delay is unacceptable. Delay casts uncertainty on the program. If we delay the new authorization, states will hold back on new projects and that will cost jobs,” he stressed. “We are not in the business of delay. It is time to move ahead.”