States hope US will extend highway funding next month

WASHINGTON Tue Aug 23, 2011 5:39pm EDT

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WASHINGTON Aug 23 (Reuters) - State leaders pressed members of Congress on Tuesday to extend funding for highway construction and repair, saying jobs were at stake nationwide.

The lobbying push highlights nervousness among highway officials following last month's congressional fight over a similar funding extension for aviation programs. That controversy shut down construction projects for two weeks and cost the government $400 million in lost tax revenue.

"Congress must take action by Sept. 30, or the federal highway and transit programs that support thousands of jobs in every state will shut down," said Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, in a statement.

The major authorization for spending on roads, bridges and public transportation expired more than two years ago. Since then Congress has passed a series of patchwork extensions while they attempt to hammer out another sweeping blueprint.

The current extension expires at the end of September, and because they have yet to agree on the larger spending road map, members of Congress will take up another extension when they return from their August break, according to aides.

No proposals were made before Congress adjourned.

The federal government funnels $42 billion annually to states for highway work and $11 billion for public transportation, according to the highway association. It estimates that 500,000 jobs are in jeopardy if an extension does not pass.

That number could not be independently confirmed.

South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard said his state receives less than 1 percent of federal transportation funding, which is primarily based on the 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax levied at the pump. He added, though, that the road money is crucial for many rural states.

"Two-thirds of the truck traffic in this state does not originate or reach its destination in South Dakota," he said in a statement. "While interstate commerce is essential, so are the travel needs of South Dakotans for business and leisure."

Last month, Congress failed to pass a similar extension of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding before the then extension ended, leading to temporary layoffs and federal employee furloughs for two weeks.

In July, the chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee said he would roll out a six-year plan to spend $35 billion a year, relying on state infrastructure banks. The Senate Public Works committee, meanwhile, is looking into a two-year bill with a slightly bigger price tag.

The Obama administration deferred comment on prospects for an extension, instead remaining intent that Congress should pass a long-term bill.

"Every year, hundreds of thousands workers' paychecks depend on federally-funded projects to build roads, bridges, transit and rail," said Olivia Alair, a U.S. Transportation Department spokeswoman.

"Without a new transportation bill to provide certainty to contractors and state DOTs, jobs for those construction workers, and hundreds of thousands more who support and supply them, are at risk," Alair said.

(Additional reporting by John Crawley and Karen Pierog in Chicago)

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