It appears possible that major federal transportation programs will have to be temporarily shut down early next week, due to a congressional conflict over funding.
In addition, unless the conflict is resolved, some 4,000 employees of the federal Department of Transportation will have to be furloughed on Tuesday, said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn.
Friday afternoon Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., objected to a request for a short-term extension of the federal highway program, and then threatened a filibuster. The extension is needed to give Congress time to pass a jobs measure that includes an extension of the highway program through the end of the year.
Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that the result of Bunning's "rather arbitrary and willful action" is that starting Monday, March 1 the Department of Transportation will not be able to reimburse states for their share of federal highway or transit funding. Further, furloughs of DOT employees will have to begin on Tuesday, he said.
"That means the entire Federal Highway Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, some portions of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and some elements of the Research and Innovative Technology will cease operation (and) their employees will be furloughed. That will be a total of 4,000 employees furloughed beginning Tuesday, March 2."
Truck safety programs will stop, Oberstar said. The funding that FMCSA provides to state safety enforcement through the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program will stop, so there will be no roadside safety enforcement unless states continue without federal support.
"None of that will happen because there will no funding for it and if there's a furlough on Tuesday there won't be any personnel available for enforcement action," Oberstar said.
He said he has not heard from the Senate on when the issue might be resolved. If the shutdown lasts all week, the states could lose $951 million in federal support, and many will withhold their bid lettings, which will lead to job losses.
"This is just a terrible turn of events," he said.
Highway interests expressed alarm.
"We are deeply concerned about the severe impacts to state and local transportation programs of this disruption of the federal highway and transit programs," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in a statement.
He noted that Oberstar, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have an agreement that will enable the House to pass the Senate version of an extension of the highway and transit programs, with the understanding that a later legislative fix will revise the distribution of highway discretionary funds.
"We hope Congress can move this legislation as early in the week as possible so reimbursements to the states can resume," Horsley said.