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Transportation planners wait for money as the infrastructure plan stalls in Congress

Construction workers build a sound wall along Interstate Highway 66 in Fairfax, Va., this past August. While Congress debates President Biden's infrastructure bill, some rural transportation projects are in limbo.
Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
Construction workers build a sound wall along Interstate Highway 66 in Fairfax, Va., this past August. While Congress debates President Biden's infrastructure bill, some rural transportation projects are in limbo.

Updated October 26, 2021 at 11:03 AM ET

Many residents of Midwest and Northern states like to joke that there are just two seasons: winter and construction.

While the latter season is about to end and many of the orange barrels and cones will soon go into storage, there's a lot of uncertainty about what projects can break ground next spring.

That's because as of now, House Democrats won't call the Biden administration's trillion dollar infrastructure bill for a final vote without an agreement on a much broader social spending plan, and the clock is ticking.

To keep money flowing from the highway trust fund and other federal transportation programs in motion, Congress passed a short-term, one month extensionof the previous surface transportation authorization bill, but that extension expires Sunday.

And without passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill this week, or at least another extension, about 3,700 employees in the U.S. Department of Transportation will be furloughed. In the meantime, state and local highway and transit planners from coast to coast are unsure of how much federal funding they will have to fix and replace crumbling roads and bridges, and when they might get it.

"I think a lot of folks in the transportation industry are in limbo," says Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

AASHTO surveyed its members about the difficulties caused by the delay in passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and it found that from coast to coast, planners are having delaying their planning or postponing projects because of the uncertainty.

"We are heavily reliant on the federal money," says Bill Panos, North Dakota's director of transportation. "It is more than half of our entire transportation budget."

Panos told NPR that smaller, rural states like his have fewer options for raising a significant amount of infrastructure funding on their own.

"We need and rely on the federal funding as much or more than other states because we don't have a lot of options," Panos says. "We don't have a large population, but we have a lot of roads and we have a lot of bridges. And many of them were built in partnership with the federal government."

"Really, for us, it's just about maintaining what we've already built."

Panos adds that this is a particularly bad time for there to be delays and uncertainty about federal funding.

"Here in the Northern Plains and North Dakota, we have a construction season which is rather short," Panos says. His agency is making plans right now to put next year's construction projects out to bid, so they are ready to break ground and soon as the ground thaws in spring.

"So this is, right now, the dawn of our construction season, and in fact, some of the delays in the federal funding, some of the uncertainty has created delays in some of our projects right now. We have pushed off some of our projects."

And North Dakota isn't alone. Transportation planners all across the country who were thrilled this summer when the White House and Congress reached a bipartisan infrastructure agreement and it passed the Senate are now getting heartburn over the Congressional gridlock.

"Its incredibly frustrating to those of us in the transportation community to see it get this far and then to see it kind of stall for the last two or three months in the House," says AASHTO's Jim Tymon. "The fact that Congress hasn't gotten that done has really hamstrung some state DOTs and transit agencies because they rely on those federal dollars and the predictability of those federal dollars."

Tymon says transportation planners, construction firms and their workers are getting increasingly anxious, as the short term extension of transportation funding is about to expire.

"And that's changing the approach that a lot of states take and how they put projects out to bid. And as a result, you'll have less work for contractors to bid on and fewer jobs for construction workers."

AASHTO's survey found examples of state and local transportation departments and transit agencies facing delayed projects and higher costs across the country because of the uncertainty.

"A short-term extension that provides only 1/12th of our contract authority forces us to either delay letting much needed projects due to inadequate funding or requires us to front the cost with state funds which severely impacts our diminishing state cash," wrote the Alabama Department of Transportation in response to the survey.

"[The short-term extension] also increases labor, construction and material costs affecting ALDOT and its contractors, consultants, material suppliers, and Alabama citizens who work for these businesses," the agency added.

Kentucky's Transportation Cabinet says it, too, is facing higher costs and uncertainty about what projects can go forward because of the delay.

"Over the next four months, KYTC has over a quarter of a billion dollars in projects scheduled for construction lettings," the agency noted. "Without the certainty of full federal-aid highway funding, many of these projects could be delayed until federal funds are in hand."

In addition, without the long term funding certainty that would be provided by the five year bipartisan infrastructure bill, highway, rail and mass transit planners say they cannot make decisions about bigger projects that often take several years to complete.

They hope the White House and Democrats in Congress can reach a compromise and figure out a way forward soon, because the shovels are ready, they just need the federal funding.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.