Congress gave itself another six months to write a new transportation plan last week, but the extension moved forward only after a deal was struck to give states more flexibility on how they can spend money designated for "transportation enhancements."
U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, pushed for the rules to be relaxed. He threatened to derail the extension, which was also tied to funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, unless the issue was addressed. Under an agreement reached with other senators, lawmakers will loosen restrictions on the enhancements later, when they rewrite the country's transportation spending plan, reports the Tulsa World .
The senator said states should be able to spend their money on basic needs, like repairing bridges, instead of on the enhancements. The so-called enhancements include transportation-related projects like trails for pedestrians and cyclists, historic preservation and beautification. Since 1991, Congress has required that some of the money spent on federally funded transportation projects include such enhancements, which also require a small local contribution.
"We are not pouring asphalt, we are not laying concrete, we are not decreasing congestion, and we are not increasing safety," Coburn said on the Senate floor last week ( video ). "What we are doing is we are following the rules of Washington when we have greater needs."
But state transportation officials, who pressed Congress for an extension before the previous law expires on September 30, stayed neutral on the issue of enhancements.
"Our members have used transportation enhancements pretty effectively for their own purposes," says Jack Basso, director of program finance and management at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). "They find it's goodwill, it deals a lot with the locals. It has not been viewed as a negative, from our end."
Currently, the enhancements cost about $650 million a year, out of the roughly $40 billion the federal government spends on surface transportation, Basso says. "It's not change, but it's not huge money either when you spread it out over 52 jurisdictions. But in the circumstances we're in, everything helps."
The bigger question is whether the six-month reprieve will be enough time for Congress to fashion a longer-lasting transportation plan. Republicans in the House want a six-year plan to keep spending limited to the amount brought in by federal gas taxes, but lately that has not been enough to pay for all the programs Congress authorized. Democrats in the Senate, meanwhile, want a two-year plan that would keep funding at current levels, which would require using other tax revenues to make up for the shortfall.
"The money is the real show-stopper in this," Basso says. "This is going to be a tough deal. I would like to think we could get this done and get it funded, certainly at least at current levels, but that is going to be a difficult thing to do in six months."