Congressional Activity Related to Bridge and Road Funding Picks Up

Despite the ongoing stall in talks between The White House and Congress on coronavirus stimulus aid, there has been a great deal of activity when it comes to allocations for bridge and road projects. Here are a few of the highlights.

Funding is approved to repair bridges and roads damaged by natural disasters.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao recently announced that the Department of Transportation (DOT) will provide almost $575 million in Emergency Relief Program funds to help 39 states and Puerto Rico. The money will go toward repairing bridges and roads that have been impacted by storms, floods, wildfires and other natural disasters. 

The DOT’s Emergency Relief Program, which is administered by the Federal Highway Administration, provides reimbursements to states, territories and other entities to cover eligible expenses related to damage from natural disasters or other emergencies. 

The funds must be used to help pay for the reconstruction or replacement of damaged highways and bridges, along with setting up detours and replacing guardrails and other damaged structural components. 

Recently approved reimbursements include:

  • Alabama: $27 million to cover recent storm and flood damage.
  • California: $64 million overall, including $34 million for bridge and road work related to wildfires that took place in 2018. 
  • Florida: $22 million to pay for damage from Hurricane Michael.
  • Michigan: $25 million to cover this year’s flood-related repairs to the state’s bridges and roads.
  • Nebraska: $46 million for winter storm and flooding damage that happened in 2019.
  • North Carolina: $21 million for repairs necessitated by Hurricane Dorian.

This funding program provides great value to the communities that receive reimbursements from it. It makes it possible to complete unexpected emergency repairs on bridges and roads that people travel on day after day to get to work and school and that businesses depend on for commerce.

Waivers on state and local contributions to federally funded bridge and road projects are proposed.

Representative Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois, recently introduced the Highway Relief Act. It would enable the Secretary of Transportation to waive the state and local share of costs for federally funded highway projects in 2021 and 2022. That means these initiatives could be 100% funded by the federal government over the next two years, with no state or local contributions required.

The reason for the proposed legislation is to create new construction-related jobs and to support badly needed bridge and road infrastructure projects during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. State Departments of Transportation are getting their funding cut because of the pandemic. States are being forced to shift dollars to COVID-19-related expenses. In addition, fuel tax revenue and tolls, key bridge and road funding sources for many states, are down because people are driving less. This bill will allow bridge and road projects to continue during these challenging times. It could be a major boon to contractors and other businesses in the bridge and road development and maintenance industries.

The proposed legislation has received support from many industry groups, including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). The bill could be passed on its own, as part of a larger legislative initiative or shelved until after the election. We’ll provide updates as they come available.

Industry group calls on Congress to approve emergency transportation funding.

AASHTO, the same group referenced in the previous section, recently renewed its call for Congress to supply $37 billion in emergency funding for state DOTs.

The request came in an early October letter from AASHTO Executive Director Jim Tymon, addressed to Congressional leaders. The stimulus funding would be used to help prevent the cancellation or delay of vital bridge and road projects because of pandemic-related budget shortfalls. It would also help prevent  job losses at state DOTs and private sector companies that support bridge, road, and other transportation projects.

The budget shortfalls have been devastating in many states. As outlined previously, they are the result of dollars being shifted from infrastructure projects to health expenses related to COVID-19 care and prevention, along with reductions in toll and gas tax revenue because people are driving less.

AASHTO landed on the $37-billion number because it estimates state transportation revenue losses of that amount over the next five years, with $16 billion of that loss coming this year alone.

The FAST Act has been extended.

The Senate and House of Representatives recently approved a one-year extension of the FAST Act, the current surface transportation authorization bill. It was signed into law by President Trump. The bridge and highway program extension was part of a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through December 11 of this year. The FAST Act extension was tucked into the appropriations measure because it was the only possible way to extend it past the original FAST Act’s September 30 expiration.

The extension includes $13.6 billion to maintain the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund at current funding levels for bridge, highway, and transit programs. It provides much-needed financial certainty to state and local governments experiencing pandemic-related revenue shortfalls.

It is expected that the extension of the FAST Act will allow Congress time to negotiate a longer term bridge and road funding measure that could include many of the components outlined in this article. We’ll provide progress updates as they come available.