Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tennessee to lose $190 million in federal funds for roads

Nashville, 3 other metro areas will be hardest hit By Bill Theobald • TENNESSEAN WASHINGTON BUREAU • September 30, 2009 WASHINGTON — Tennessee will lose about $190 million in federal highway spending authority because Congress hasn't passed a new version of a law that OKs funding for most highway, bridge and mass transit projects across the country. Paul Degges, chief engineer with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said the loss of spending authority would force delays in road projects across the state. "You are going to have to totally reprioritize things," Degges said. The state receives about $800 million in federal highway funds each year. That was augmented this year by an additional $500 million in funds through the economic stimulus legislation passed in February. The previous multi-year transportation authorization bill expires today. It included a requirement that states would lose some already-authorized funds if the money hasn't been committed to specific contracts. Degges said the four largest metropolitan areas in the state, including Nashville, probably will be hardest hit because the more expensive projects occur there. The delay in enacting a new spending plan also will make planning future transportation spending difficult, he said. The problem is that with health-care reform and climate change legislation getting all of the attention, lawmakers have neither the time nor the inclination to debate transportation policy, advocates say. They expect Congress to eventually adopt a new law, but the big question is when. Congress will decide this week how long the current law should be extended. One proposal calls for a one-month extension. The House has approved a three-month extension. The Obama administration favors an 18-month delay, saying lawmakers need that much time to resolve issues such as whether to raise fuel taxes or find some other means to fund transportation programs. Under any extension, states will continue to receive transportation money from Washington at present levels. A new law probably would cost substantially more, meaning states could receive more federal money for transportation. A six-year, $500 billion bill introduced by Minnesota Democratic Rep. James Oberstar is the only comprehensive legislation pending in Congress. It envisions the biggest federal commitment for high-speed rail ever: $50 billion. Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says his bill would create 6 million jobs over the next six years. But transportation is a lower priority in the Senate, where the tax-writing Finance Committee is deeply involved in health care and the Environment and Public Works Committee is focused on climate change legislation.

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