coverCongress continues to work on reauthorizing the nation’s surface transportation laws. The legislation, called SAFETEA-LU (or “the highway bill”), authorizes all manner of transportation programs from highways to transit to research and safety. With the last major authorization bill having expired, lawmakers are attempting to craft a successor to the $286.4 billion bill that funded transportation infrastructure spending between 2005 and 2009. However, committing to several years of robust spending on anything is a tough sell as a new wave of austerity has hit Capitol Hill.

In the interim since the last bill expired, lawmakers have passed a series of short-term extensions to continue spending on transportation infrastructure, the latest of which the President signed earlier this month (H.R. 662).  The bill extends program authorization through September 30, giving Congress time to consider a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization law.

With some breathing room in place, Congressman Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, now plans to work with Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and the rest of Congress to get a new multi-year bill to the president to sign by the August recess of Congress, which begins August 8. This tentative schedule will allow time for Congress to hold a conference on differing House and Senate versions, and complete the bill before the latest extension expires.

No Earmarks (or High Priority Projects): In the past, the highway bill has been an attractive piece of legislation for many local governments because it provides an opportunity to secure essentially guaranteed funding over the term of the bill through what are known as Member “high priority projects” or HPPs. HPPs were particularly attractive as such projects did not need to fight every year for earmarked appropriations.  When passed, the surface transportation bill directed billions of dollars to all sorts of transportation projects typically found in cities, such as streetscaping, bike lanes, walking paths, sidewalks, and other “quality of life” projects. Of course, buses, light rail, new highways, interstate interchanges, and other improvements to existing federal highways are also well within the scope of the bill.

After months of internal discussions and meetings with the Department of Transportation and House leadership, however, it appears that the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee has decided not to include specific projects in its version of the transportation bill. Instead, the bill will disperse all of the discretionary funds typically allocated to the 435 Congressional Districts directly to the State Departments of Transportation using a formula process.

There will be opportunities for local governments to seek highway bill funds when they are dispersed by each State’s Transportation Agency. The Committee is working to ensure that funds are dispersed in a fair manner that reaches communities in both urban and rural areas of each state.  With State Departments of Transportation playing a larger role in disbursing funds, a community will have to ensure that its project is a priority on the State’s Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP). Projects on the STIP traditionally receive a majority of highway bill funds.

While Congress has placed a moratorium on “earmarks” in FY11 and FY12, there are no restrictions in place that would prevent a Member from contacting State government leaders to express support for a particular local initiative or project.  In fact, several Members have already made it clear that they intend on speaking to their State’s Transportation Agency to share their interest in seeing important projects funded.  In the days ahead, it is important that you communicate your transportation needs to your congressional delegation to ensure they are not only aware of your planned projects, but are intending to advocate for them at the state level.

James Alfano is an Editor at The FundBook, a free monthly publication that provides unique monitoring, analysis, and assessment of federal funding opportunities for city and county decision makers across the country.  Subscribe for free at and read our current issue here