People of Northwest Public Radio
Thu July 3, 2014
Feds Warn Of Possible Highway Cash Holdback to Northwest States
The Idaho Department of Transportation has temporarily suspended advertising for bids for some highway projects. Oregon and Washington may soon do the same. That's all because of a standoff in Congress about how to replenish the money in the pot for highway construction.
The issue here is that the federal gas tax hasn't gone up for more than twenty years. However, commitments for highway construction have. In the past, Congress has patched the gap with transfers and borrowing. But this year, conservatives are warning "no more." In response, the Obama Administration is warning states that starting next month they may get less federal highway construction money.
In Oregon, ODOT Assistant Director Travis Brouwer says his agency will essentially float a loan to the federal government to keep contractors and workers active.
"We have sufficient cash reserves for at least a short period of time,” Brouwer said. “We're not quite sure how long, but we should be able to weather a couple months lapse in federal funding."
The uncertainty about future funding caused the Idaho Transportation Department in mid-June to suspend advertising for bids on a half dozen planned projects. Spokesman Reed Hollinshead says his agency has been sufficiently frugal - and has enough near-term clarity on federal reimbursements - that it will resume bid solicitation next week.
Washington's transportation department is still evaluating.
"We are still making assessments," said WSDOT spokesman Lars Erickson. "We are looking at projects that might be at risk on a case-by-case basis."
"We are optimistic Congress will take action as they have every time the Highway Trust Fund has approached insolvency," Erickson added via email.
Congressional committee chairman from both parties - including Oregon Senator Ron Wyden - are trading ideas for short-term fixes to head off the crisis.
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