Oklahoman: Highway Money Issues Jeopardize Oklahoma Projects
Inhofe, Other Lawmakers Race to Find a Solution to Funding Woes
October 2, 2009
Posted by: David Lungren David_Lungren@epw.senate.gov
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Highway Money Issues Jeopardize Oklahoma Projects
By: Chris Casteel
October 02, 2009
Inaction by Congress has jeopardized millions of dollars in highway funds for Oklahoma and may lead the state Transportation Department to cancel all bid awards next month, state transportation Director Gary Ridley said Thursday.
Congress failed on Wednesday, the last day of the federal fiscal year, to head off a planned $8 billion in cuts to state highway departments nationwide. Moreover, lawmakers have only given a 30-day extension to highway funding, restricting what Ridley's department can legally commit.
It's a double whammy for the state Transportation Department. The funding cut - called a rescission - means less money for road and bridge projects. And the short extension prevents the department from obligating money it isn't authorized to spend.
"It is really a problem," Ridley said.
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican, tried to resolve the problem late Wednesday, working with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The two came up with a plan to extend the current highway bill for three months and to use money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program - the financial industry bailout funds - to patch the funding hole.
However, Inhofe said Thursday that Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, objected and blocked action on the plan.
Inhofe said he was still scrambling to find a solution but that he was "pretty pessimistic."
Ridley said the funding cut would have put a $40 million hole in the department's spending authority immediately. Without action, it could reach $135 million over the next year.
The cut in spending authority has been foreseen for months - and such rescissions aren't unusual - but the situation was exacerbated by Congress' failure to pass a long-term highway bill before Sept. 30, when the current legislation expired.
There has been a struggle between the House and the Senate over how long to extend the current bill. The House passed a three-month extension, but the Senate and the administration want an 18-month extension to give lawmakers time to work on a long-term bill.
Ultimately, the differences weren't resolved by Wednesday night, and only a 30-day extension was approved.
Ridley said the department must make a $28 million bond payment, leaving only enough for three or four projects.
Because of that, Ridley said, he may cancel bid-letting for projects in November if a longer extension isn't approved that gives the department greater certainty.
The department has committed more than $400 million it will get from the stimulus bill passed early this year and doesn't have any money to plug holes, he said.
"Taking up an extension is always problematic," Inhofe said in a speech on the Senate floor.
"Unfortunately, some view this as an opportunity to make a point. There are those (Republicans) who won't hesitate to hold the entire highway program hostage in order to enumerate yet again their distaste for congressionally directed spending on highway projects. At the same time, the (Democratic) leadership has known for months this was coming, but was unwilling to force the issue and take the time to have votes on this important issue. This could have been resolved weeks ago if they would have been invested in it," Inhofe said.