The Department of Transportation will furlough nearly 2,000 employees without pay today, due to a congressional conflict over funding. DOT said it will cease making reimbursements to states for highway construction and maintenance projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Also affected is funding for the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program, which reimburses states for expenses associated with truck safety.

The furloughs will affect employees funded by the Highway Trust Fund at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Research and Innovative Technology Administration.

"As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed."

At issue is a short-term extension of the federal highway program, which Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked last Friday. Bunning objected to the extension, arguing that it should be paid for by funds in the Recovery Act. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declined to accept that approach, Bunning 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.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said last Friday that the result of Bunning's "rather arbitrary and willful action" is that the Department of Transportation will not be able to reimburse states for their share of federal highway or transit funding and that employees will have to be furloughed.

Truck safety programs will stop, Oberstar said. The funding that FMCSA provides to state safety enforcement through MCSAP 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.

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.