A federal government shutdown is officially off the table — at least for a few more weeks. The House voted on Tuesday to pass a “continuing resolution” that funds government operations through November 18, which means legislators can focus some attention on the fiscal year 2012 budget. The Depts. of Transportation and Housing & Urban Development are funded in one of 12 budget bills, and not surprisingly, there are major differences between the House and Senate versions — including some with specific impacts on the region.
The House version of the bill would slash federal road and transit funds by a third from existing levels, imperiling projects throughout the region; the Senate’s version keeps funding stable. House leadership recently signaled a willingness to pass a long-term transportation bill that maintains current levels of funding instead of levying drastic cuts. Will this new direction on infrastructure translate to the budget, or will House negotiators stick with starvation levels of funding?
The House bill also would cut all funding for high-speed rail, the innovative TIGER grant program, and the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaborative planning program of USDOT and HUD. It would also blow a multi-billion-dollar hole in the MTA’s capital program, because it would prohibit new loans from a federal program — the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program — that the MTA is seeking a $3 billion loan from ($2.2 billion would go to capital projects; $800 million would refinance existing debt).
The Senate’s bill would preserve the RRIF loan program, as well as the TIGER grants and funding for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Thanks to an amendment sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg and others, it includes $100 million for high-speed rail, which keeps the program on life support. The bill also includes $15 million for study of Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel, a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River that would increase rail capacity on the Northeast Corridor for both Amtrak and NJ Transit. (This money is not included in the House’s version of the bill.)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants to pass the Transportation-HUD bill this month. But with Congress far behind schedule, The Hill newspaper has suggested that legislative leaders may combine the 12 appropriations bills into one or a few omnibus bills. And of course, it’s very possible that Congress could remain stuck in gridlock and have to work on another stopgap spending bill come November.
Graphic: Wall Street Journal.