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InfrastructureNewsTop StoriesTrucking

Freight projects fall victim to Capitol Hill stalemate

Short-term extension for highway funding intensifies uncertainty of long-term investments

Long-term investments aimed at unclogging freight bottlenecks and reducing wait times for the nation’s truckers are being put on hold as state transportation departments weigh new risks caused by the stalemate on Capitol Hill over infrastructure funding.

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., failed on Friday to secure the support necessary to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan “roads and bridges” infrastructure package, lawmakers were forced instead to approve a 30-day extension of surface transportation programs authorized under the FAST Act that fund state-level highway projects.

The extension “protects thousands of Department of Transportation employees and will keep important projects on schedule,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “Now we will continue our work to pass the Build Back Better agenda into law, including a historic investment in America’s infrastructure.”

But what the extension does not do is provide confidence to some state transportation departments to begin making longer-term funding decisions, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

“While AASHTO appreciates addressing the lapse in federal highway, transit and highway safety programs caused by the failure to pass the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, short-term extensions are not a suitable way to govern,” said AASHTO Executive Director Jim Tymon.

“This particular extension doesn’t include any new funding for state departments of transportation until Oct. 15, leaving them without support from their federal partners for weeks while they continue the work of moving people and goods through our communities.”

In addition, because DOT’s Federal-Aid Highway program reimburses states after they decide to move ahead with eligible highway projects, some states may have to delay long-term projects that would have been covered under the infrastructure bill.

“Even though states have been given a month of breathing room, we don’t know what’s going to happen after that,” AASHTO spokesman Tony Dorsey told FreightWaves.

“This is a huge issue for state DOTs because they don’t know whether to start a new project. Some will have to walk out on a limb and bet things are going to be reauthorized soon, but others won’t be able to do that because they can’t afford to take that risk.”

Projects eligible for that long-term funding, Dorsey noted, include those that increase freight capacity or enhance freight movement, such as adding lanes or building overpasses.

“There are a lot of bottlenecks across the country that are causing delays, and projects that could be delayed help mitigate or reduce congestion and increase productivity.”

In its most recent assessment of the nation’s infrastructure, the American Association of Civil Engineers revealed earlier this year that of the more than 617,000 bridges across the country, 42% are at least 50 years old and 7.5% are considered structurally deficient.

“This is embarrassing and is completely unacceptable,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear told reporters at a press conference in anticipation of a vote on the infrastructure bill.

“It’s also measurable,” he said. “Each year our industry tracks the top 100 most congested cities in the U.S. Over 425,000 trucks sit idle each year in traffic. That’s 1.2 billion hours and $74.5 billion in lost productivity.”

Michael Johnson, president and CEO of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, said during the same press conference that his members are ready to begin producing materials used in highway projects.

“We’re ready to go. We can’t kick the can down the road any farther without that can falling into a pothole,” Johnson said. “Right now the states barely have the money to fill those potholes, much less plan for future needs. This is our economic circulatory system and it’s in desperate need of an upgrade.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.

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