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Highway bill could hitch a ride on the continuing resolution

Current transportation law expires Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year

With weeks to go before the current surface transportation authorization expires, the biggest mystery is increasingly whether an extension will be passed as a standalone measure or as part of a likely continuing resolution to avert a partial government shutdown.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans have signaled that they see an extension of the current law as inevitable, and the White House, in a four-page document released Sept. 3, indicated its willingness to extend the current highway law as part of a continuing resolution if Congress does not do so on its own. 

The current highway law expires Sept. 30.

[Pelosi, Mnuchin plan ‘clean’ CR, but length, other details unclear]

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said he would support a one-year extension to the current authorization. but it’s unclear whether he backs adding it to a continuing resolution.

Ranking Republican Sam Graves, R-Mo., meanwhile, backs an extension of “at least a year” according to his spokesman, Justin Harclerode, and believes it “makes sense” to attach the extension to the continuing resolution.

“Graves believes that, in the absence of a new, bipartisan multiyear reauthorization, an extension of at least a year is critical for providing some stability to states, stakeholders, workers, and the 2021 construction season,” he said.

And Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is also open to an extension of at least a year, according to a spokeswoman for the committee.

“Chairman Barrasso believes it is critical that the authorization for federal highway funding not expire or be replaced with month-to-month extensions,” said EPW spokeswoman Sarah Durdaller.

The Senate EPW panel last year unanimously approved a $287 billion, five-year surface transportation bill, but the full Senate has not yet taken up the measure. Three other Senate committees with jurisdiction — Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation; Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Senate Finance — also have yet to act. 

The House, meanwhile, passed a five-year, $494 billion bill on July 20, but without Republican support.

Durdaller said Barrasso is still committed to the bill passed by his committee, but, “if a multiyear bill can’t be agreed to before September 30, 2020, then an extension should run for at least a year to avoid unnecessary disruptions in construction and planning.”

While it’s unclear whether the surface transportation bill will be included in the continuing resolution, the White House has signaled its desire to include one other significant transportation change in the spending bill.

It included in its list of anomalies to the continuing resolution language that would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to pay for airport facilities through the General Fund instead of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. 

Receipts to the trust fund have dropped in the wake of a precipitous drop in air traffic caused by the pandemic as well as aviation industry tax relief enacted as part of a $2 trillion pandemic response law enacted in March. 

“Without the anomaly, FAA expects to have difficulty meeting obligations with existing cash balances in the (trust fund) beginning in October and FAA would need to cancel or delay programs and activities to manage the cash shortfall during the period of the CR,” the anomaly document read, noting the provision would not be needed if separate COVID-19 legislation passes Congress.

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