How the Government Shutdown Will Affect Roads and Bridges

Sept. 29, 2023
Congress must pass legislation by Saturday night to remain open

By Harlee Hewitt, Associate Editor

With a partial shutdown of the federal government likely to begin Sunday morning, the roads and bridges construction industry braces for a slew of impacts.

By midnight on Saturday, the House of Representatives must agree on a bill that will pass the Senate and get signed by President Biden by to avoid furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal workers and the suspension of a wide range of services, from nutrition benefits, disaster response, and some infrastructure projects.

Each year, Congress must enact 12 separate annual appropriations bills to fund federal agencies and programs from agriculture to transportation. With fiscal year (FY) 2024 beginning on Oct. 1, none of the 12 bills have been enacted into law, according to a memo published last week by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA).

House Republicans have rejected spending levels for FY 2024 that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to during negotiations with President Biden in May.

The agreement included $1.59 trillion in discretionary spending in FY 2024. House Republicans are demanding another $120 billion in cuts, plus tougher legislation on issues like immigration from the U.S. southern border.

While a resolution remains achievable with expected Senate action on a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) bill, as well as the House scheduling votes for Saturday, questions persist about how a shutdown could impact federal transportation programs. 

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg held a press conference Wednesday to lay out the possible impacts of a government shutdown “so that there’s no confusion about what’s at stake for transportation, for working families, and for all Americans.

“This summer, President Biden and Speaker McCarthy shook hands and made a bipartisan deal to keep this country running. Two-thirds of House Republicans voted for that deal. I should note that deal was tough for all sides, frankly, it was tough for this department because it meant cutting back on funding for good infrastructure projects that we believe in for fixing roads and bridges and airports, but we accepted it because that was the deal,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg also spoke to the poor timing of the shutdown, given the many infrastructure and transportation programs that have recently been funded that could potentially see delays upon other long-term effects.

“There is no good time for a government shutdown, but this is a particularly bad time for a government shutdown, especially when it comes to transportation. The consequences would be disruptive and dangerous and so would the long-term consequences of paying the ransom to avoid it in the form of cuts to safety, infrastructure, and other priorities.”

Before 1976, the U.S. had never seen a government shutdown or a federal funding gap. Since then, there have been 10 shutdowns and 11 funding gaps, with three of those shutdowns occurring in the past decade.  

The last government shutdown also was the longest at 34 days. It stretched over the holidays from late 2018 to early 2019, during former President Donald Trump’s administration.

During that shutdown, transportation construction work across the nation was put on hold, with state transportation officials withholding approvals for 2019 projects until federal funding was guaranteed.

The government had been running on a continuing resolution which ran out Dec. 21, cutting off the availability of transportation funding to state governments. That meant only a quarter of the $44 billion for highway and $11 billion for transit was paid at the beginning of the FY.

In one example of how construction projects were affected in 2019, Oklahoma halted accepting bids for about $137 million in federally funded projects as the shutdown continued. Bidding on $102 million in projects supported by federal funding was canceled in January that year, while another $36 million scheduled for February was left vulnerable.

As government employees and their families prepare to go through uncertain times again, the White House announced this week that the upcoming shutdown could “delay major infrastructure projects across the country due to a delay in EPA and DOI environmental reviews, which would affect multiple federal agency projects.”

Other safety precautions could also take a back seat, according to the White House: “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would be forced to limit workplace inspections, denying workers a key protection against safety risk.”

In addition, the release said permitting could be disrupted. “No USDA loans or grants would be made for modernizing utilities infrastructure in rural America, including permitting actions for rural electric transmission and broadband projects.”

While the Biden administration has yet to release many specifics of how a shutdown would be administered, the ARTBA released guidance on how funding for highway and public transportation programs would most likely move forward during the shutdown.   

According to ARTBA’s memo, the federal highway program and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) employees are supported by the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and advanced appropriations included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), not the General Fund (GF), like most other federal programs.

The IIJA authorized trust fund expenditures for FY 2022 through FY 2026 and ensured the fund has sufficient resources to support these investments. As a result, the federal highway programs and the FHWA would continue to operate without an appropriations bill.

Only projects funded by appropriations but not funded under HTF could potentially see delays, according to Dean Franks, senior vice president of congressional relations at ARTBA.

This also means that workers employed under the Federal Highway Program and employees of the FHWA will not be furloughed during the shutdown, Franks said. These workers will be paid and most likely continue to work full-time.

Similarly, nearly all federal transit programs authorized by the IIJA law are either funded by the HTF or advanced appropriations included in the IIJA. However, the Capitol Investment Grant program, the main, federally supported, transit construction program, does receive most of its resources from the GF. Impact on construction projects funded through this program would be up to local transit and rail agencies, which may either stop work or elect to use their own resources to pay contractors until an agreement is reached. RB

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