Wash., Ore., to delay transportation projects if long-term highway bill fails to pass

Last week, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., joined other Democrats and labor and business leaders, to urge Republicans to bring a long-term transportation bill to the full Senate floor by July 20. 

Authorization for the nation’s current transportation program, known as MAP-21, expires July 31. The Highway Trust Fund, which provides the money for highway and bridge projects, is set to hit a shortfall around the same time.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), without action in Congress, 435 transportation projects in Washington that rely on federal funding could be affected; another 101 projects could be at risk of delay.

This week, Murray got her wish when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the so-called DRIVE Act, which would fund the Highway Trust Fund for six years.

While the bill is an increase over the current program, the necessary funding sources require the Senate Finance Committee to act. The DRIVE Act increases highway spending from $37.8 billion under the current MAP-21 program to $45.5 billion in 2021. Over six years, $257.5 billion would be sent to the states.

Travis Brouwer, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, said ODOT supports the legislation. “We like the increased focus on freight mobility and efforts to streamline the private delivery process, and the stability that lasts longer than a few months.”

Brouwer said ODOT is currently planning for projects from 2018 to 2021. “And we can’t select projects six years from now if we don’t know how much funding we’ll have six weeks from now.”

In the absence of stable, long-term funding, ODOT would have to rethink its plan. “We don’t want to spend millions developing projects that we’re not going to be able to build,” he said.

Brouwer said if no legislation passes and Congress patches the Highway Trust Fund through the end of the year, for example, ODOT could go forward with projects until the end of the fiscal year. “After that, we could get a start on next season’s plan, but the season after that would be up in the air.”