WASHINGTON – Congressional gridlock soon could soon be coming to a highway near you.
The federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides at least part of the funding for 25 ongoing highway projects in Erie and Niagara counties, is quickly running out of cash, and the federal government will start trimming back highway aid to the states next month.
That’s just the first step in a potential two-step gridlock-induced disaster that could see all federal highway funding shut off around the end of August.
While the state Department of Transportation says it will be able to use its own funds to temporarily pay the federal share of the cost for those local repairs through the summer, state officials are joining with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and others in warning that Congress has to act soon to guarantee that the pace of future road work continues as planned.
“New York should not have to decide between delaying these construction projects and footing the bill for them without any guarantee they will be reimbursed,” Schumer said Wednesday.
“Any cutback in funding could be a dagger to the heart of our economy, and I will fight hard to make sure we avoid this at all costs.”
Nearly $137 million in road work partly funded by the federal government is currently under way in Erie and Niagara counties.
Among the major projects are the replacement of the bridges that carry the Youngmann Highway (Interstate 290) over Military Road and Delaware Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda, the repaving of parts of Routes 33, 219 and 400, and the rehabilitation of the bridges carrying I-190 and Military Road over the New York Power Authority reservoir in Niagara County.
While work continues on those projects, their federal funding is about to shrink. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony R. Foxx sent a letter to his state counterparts last week, saying that in order to make the trust fund last longer, his agency next month will trim payments to the states by about 28 percent.
That cut should not immediately affect projects in the Buffalo area and the rest of the state because, in the short term, the state can make up the difference, said Ronald L. Epstein, chief financial officer for the state Department of Transportation.
“For a state like New York, with access to significant capital, there shouldn’t be any noticeable impact,” Epstein said.
In the longer term, though, continued gridlock in Congress over the issue could spell disaster. Foxx said he expects the highway trust fund to run out of money by the end of August, which would cut off federal funding entirely.
On top of that, a month later, the bill authorizing federal highway programs expires, and with it expires the government’s authority to collect the 18.4 cent per gallon gasoline tax that largely funds federal highway projects.
“If we get to Sept. 30 and there isn’t a funding solution, we would not be able to spend money even if we had it,” Foxx said.
At that point, with federal funding cut off, “we can’t afford to float the money,” Epstein said, and highway projects would shut down.
Congress, riven between Democrats who advocate a boost in infrastructure spending and Republicans who are divided between those who want a solution and tea party types who wonder why Uncle Sam is even funding highways, has essentially abandoned efforts at coming up with a long-term highway bill to fix the problems.
What’s in the works instead are two competing temporary fixes, one in the House and one in the Senate.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., this week proposed a plan that would add about $10.7 billion to the Highway Trust Fund and authorize federal highway programs through next May 31.
“While it doesn’t provide as much funding as I would like – enough to get through the end of next year – it does give Congress and the tax-writing committees ample time to consider a more long-term solution to the Highway Trust Fund,” Camp said.
Meanwhile, on the Senate side, the Finance Committee is still working to try to develop a plan to extend federal highway programs only through the end of this year, a move that, according to Camp, could lead to a postelection ploy on the part of Democrats to raise the gas tax – a move that Schumer said he would oppose.
With the two houses of Congress still seemingly far apart on the issue – and with Congress in session for only 14 more days before its five-week summer recess – Schumer said lawmakers have to get their act together.
“Just as our economy is picking up steam and adding jobs, the last thing we need is another self-inflicted economic wound from Washington,” Schumer said. “But’s that’s exactly what will happen if Congress doesn’t act this month to prevent what some are calling ‘a highway shutdown.’ ”