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Warner urges House to pass a transportation funding bill

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner is urging the House of Representatives to pass a transportation bill before the weekend, when current federal road funding expires.

Failure to do so, Warner said Wednesday, could lead to stalled projects, uncertainty and loss of jobs for the construction industry, and possibly a loss of federal gas tax dollars for the government.

Warner, a Democrat, held a conference call with reporters to talk about the looming deadline. The Senate this month has passed a bill to authorize road funding for another two years, and he’d like to see the House pass it or its own bill — but not a temporary extension that Warner says will do little to give stability to state transportation planning.

“This is no way to run an enterprise as large as the federal government is, where we use these short-term extensions,” Warner said. “This is one more example of why we need to get out of our partisan foxholes and put the country’s business in order.”

House Republican leaders have suggested they want to pass an extension — 60 or 90 days — to give more time to write a transportation bill. Federal transportation funding has been kept afloat by extensions for nearly two years, since the last funding bill expired. Federal transportation authorization bills typically run for five years.

The Senate’s two-year bill, Warner said, maintains level funding for road projects and would provide about $1 billion a year for transportation funds to Virginia projects, and support nearly 40,000 construction jobs in the state.

But both the Virginia Department of Transportation and construction companies need certainty that there’s a long-term funding plan, Warner said, before they ink contracts and hire workers.

A short-term extension of two or three months doesn’t provide such certainty, he said.

Former VDOT commissioner Phil Shucet was also on the call, backing up Warner’s arguments.

He and Warner agreed that VDOT would be reluctant to sign long-term contracts that involve federal funds under a short-term extension.

“You can be sure that is terrible business. If there were a 60-day extension and even some outside thought that there would be a permanent bill in place… that’s going to be reflected in contract prices,” Shucet said. “Nobody buys a house on the hope that they’ll be able to pay for it in 60 days and figure out the 30 years later.”

Jeff Southard, vice-president of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, said that when construction companies don’t know what Congress will do, they can’t plan. This is the time of year, he said, when construction companies are lining up bids and equipment, borrowing money and projecting the work force they’ll need.

“It has a very chilling effect on all of those activities,” Southard said.

If nothing passes by Saturday night, there could be other ramifications — Warner said he doesn’t think there’s legal authority, without a transportation funding bill, for the government to collect gas and diesel taxes.

“There’s a little bit of uncertainty whether you’re suddenly going to see a 17-cent decrease in the price of gas,” he said.