Will a Highways/Transit Shutdown follow the Aviation Shutdown?

Buckle up, potential bumpy ride ahead (image: goodgerster-flickr)

[Saturday update: The Senate accepted the House’s FAA proposed extension on Friday. The FAA legislation is renewed through September 16th and will restart construction projects, return FAA staff to work, and enable the federal government to again collect federal aviation taxes.]

Never happen, you say.  It’s one thing for Congress to partially shut down the FAA, affecting “only” a couple hundred construction projects and a few thousand jobs. Surely Congress would never do that to the rest of USDOT – interrupting thousands of highway and transit projects and furloughing thousands of private sector construction workers.

Or would they?

Not only is it possible, it’s a threat causing increasing anxiety among transportation stakeholders.

The federal government’s authority to collect 14.4 cents of the 18.4 cents gas tax expires (as do some other fees) expires at midnight on September 30unless SAFETEA-LU is extended.  The legislation has been extended seven times since expiring in 2009, without significant controversy.  There are very significant policy and funding differences between the House Republican transportation proposal and the Senate bipartisan proposal.  Is this starting to sound familiar?  Can you say “FAA extension”?

The hand-wringing has started and although it’s mostly confined to the transportation-insider blogosphere and twitter, at least one major DC publication has written about it:

“Already, a handful of conservative groups are eyeing the expiration as the next potential front in the spending and tax fight — including Grover Norquist’s influential Americans for Tax Reform group — but are mum about any potential legislative strategy,” (Expiring gas tax may be next battle on the Hill, Politico).

Before you say “no way”, consider this.  A month ago, who would have predicted Congress would partially shut down FAA, closing down 253 construction projects and sending workers home (by the way, private sector workers), and furloughing thousands of FAA employees?  And if you did predict that, you surely didn’t predict the shutdown would last more than a few days.

Consider this also: what have House Republicans learned so far from the FAA shutdown?  They got some bad press (and it increased today) but their message was not overwhelmed by Democratic and aviation community messaging. There was not what some might characterize as a significant public outcry against the House Republicans.  And at the last minute before Congress recessed for August, USDOT Secretary LaHood and President Obama – in a last ditch effort to keep construction projects and jobs going – caved in to House Republican demands.  At one point it appeared that Senate Majority Leader Reid might have temporarily caved in. But ultimately no deal was done.

And there are growing rumors that Norquist’s organization is preparing a September campaign to convince Republicans to support the expiration or scaling back of the federal fuel tax.

On the flip side, the highway and transit program is a LOT different from the aviation program.  Thousands more projects, thousands and thousands more private sector construction jobs.  Hundreds more stakeholder organizations.  Surely the public outcry would be significantly louder, as many more people would be affected negatively by a shutdown as compared to the FAA shutdown.  Mainstream media would probably pay more attention than they did to the aviation story, which they pretty much missed until the shutdown for August was inevitable. But whose side, if any, would the mainstream media take?  And which side, if any, would the public blame for a highways/transit shutdown?

Congress likes highways and transit.  It seems impossible to imagine shutting down highway and transit projects.  Congress came close last Spring in a dispute about the overall budget that threatened a partial shutdown of USDOT. And there was this little one-person filibuster in 2010 that affected USDOT.  But those fights were different.  And, Congress likes aviation too and that didn’t prevent the shutdown.  Republican and Democratic policy differences in the transportation bill are as deep as their differences on aviation policy.

Will a highways/transit shutdown be next? I don’t think anyone knows. It seems highly unlikely, but there have been many “firsts” in this Congress.The good news is that Senate Majority Leader Reid has suggested that Congress act on the legislation in September.  And supposedly now the Senate has figured out how to pay for its proposal, though the House almost certainly won’t agree to it.

What do you think?  What are the odds Congress might reach an impasse over extending SAFETEA-LU, and temporarily shut down USDOT?

Thursday morning update: The Hill’s Keith Laing reports labor will campaign for a robust highway bill over the August congressional recess.