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Funding delays hamper highways, regulatory reform

It’s a tough call: Usually, the nation is better off when Congress doesn’t get much done. In fact, government gridlock is basically built into the Constitution. But Congress does have some key responsibilities, namely paying the federal government’s bills, and especially those expenses related to national defense and the federal infrastructure.

I bring this up because today (Sept. 17) the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) was to have introduced its version of the highway bill, legislation that would then work its way through the funding process and onto the House floor for a vote. And then the fun would really start, because the House and Senate (who have already passed their bill) would get together to confer and debate and compromise over their respective differences and, when the smoke clears, there’d be a package that President Obama could sign—although whether he would or not remains to be seen.

Clearly, Congress would have to get very busy to push through the legislation before the latest extension to MAP-21 expires at the end of next month. The kicker is that T&I Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) said this week not only that the committee is putting off introducing a bill for several more weeks, but that yet another extension is likely.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx didn’t like the sound of that.

"I think if they decide to wait until the election year, it could be an empty promise," he said Tuesday. "You may have noticed that not a lot goes on in election years."

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Complicating matters, the DOT’s latest update to the Highway Trust Fund ticker showed that lawmakers might have a little more time than expected before the primary mechanism for paying for roads and bridges goes broke. And any excuse in Washington is a good one when policy makers are disinclined to do something.

So on Wednesday Foxx responded to those who “misconstrued” the numbers, and who suggested that the trust fund was “out of the woods.” On the contrary, Foxx explained with more metaphor from nature: The trust fund faces “rocky seas” and will need additional funding from Congress before the end of the year, potentially as soon as November.

“And once we approach the 2016 construction season in the Spring, the situation just gets dramatically worse as the balances rapidly decline to the point where the fund will become fully insolvent and we will be unable to meet our financial obligations to the states,” Foxx wrote in the DOT’s Fast Lane blog.  

For trucking, the issue is much more than just road construction and maintenance. Many in the industry have high hopes that Republican control of both wings of the Capitol will mean substantial regulatory relief, and the particulars make for a long wish list indeed.

Still, there’s also a good chance that good things for trucking will be tucked into the annual budget DOT budget authorization, due by Oct. 1. Of course, given that some conservatives are threatening to shut down the federal government over assorted policy disputes, the odds are more and more in favor of, you guessed it, an extension of that deadline as well.

It’s a good thing politicians aren’t in charge of the supply chain—yet.

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