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Highway and transit projects grind to a halt as the shutdown continues

Highway construction projects across the country have been jeopardized by the federal shutdown as state officials hesitate to authorize projects planned for 2019 without the assurance of federal funding.

“If this continues to drag on it will have real impacts, not only on a state’s ability to build new projects but also on their ability to operate the system that they currently have,” said Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “Eventually it’s going to have an impact on operations and maintenance.”

The percentage of federal funding that states rely on varies from one jurisdiction to the next, with states such as Montana and New Mexico getting more than 85 percent of their funding from Washington, while states such as New Jersey and Texas get a third or less of their outlay from the federal government.

Normally, federal money for highway projects becomes available when the fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. But the government was running on a continuing resolution, rather than a normal appropriation, and that ran out Dec. 21, ending the flow of highway money to state governments.

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That means that only a quarter of the $44 billion for highway projects and $11 billion in federal transit programs was paid at the outset of the fiscal year.

“With the construction season coming up on us, states are usually bidding projects over the winter so they’re ready to put shovels into the ground as we get into the end of winter or early spring,” Tymon said.

Working under a continuing resolution also stagnates federal funding at 2018 levels, creating an additional shortfall, because Congress had added money for roads and transit for 2019. That, added to the uncertainty of a government shutdown, means state and local governments will prioritize maintenance and operations while waiting for Washington to reopen the spigot.

“The fact that there’s always a mix of state and federal and local money in the transportation network, I think what you’ll see in the short term is states finding ways to move money around from different pots of money in order to keep their system operating as efficiently as possible,” Tymon said. “That being said, that’s not something they can continue to do forever.”

States with climates that allow year-round construction and maintenance schedules already are facing a dilemma, while those that plow snow during the winter still have some room for movement.

In Maryland, which gets about 40 percent of its road and transit money from the federal government, State Highway Administration spokeswoman Shanteé Felix said no current projects are federally funded.

“At this time, MDOT SHA is not affected by the government shutdown,” Felix said. “System preservation projects such as maintenance activities (litter, drainage, etc.) are all on-going. Major projects underway or soon to be underway, have funding that was already programmed.”

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Oklahoma this week postponed accepting bids on about $137 million in federally funded projects to see how the shutdown plays out.

“January and February are actually big months for us because we try to have projects let to contractors in time for them to take advantage of spring and summer,” said Terri Angier, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

Angier said that bidding on $102 million in federally funded projects was canceled in January and that an additional $36 million scheduled for bid in February also was in jeopardy.

“If things happen very quickly with everyone to come to agreement, February might be on track, but [resolution of the shutdown] has to happen with the next few days,” Angier said. “After they do that, it takes a few weeks for us to have access to those funds, and then we have to advertise [the bidding] to contractors.”

Oklahoma gets 57 percent of its road and transit funding from federal agencies, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

“There are some states that rely very heavily of the federal government to build new projects,” Tymon said. “As a result, those states can’t afford any kind of uncertainty, whereas a state that has a huge state contribution to the projects that they build is probably going able to get by a little bit easier because they’re able to shift state money into an area where they had previously counted on federal money.”