Congressional inaction could cramp Michigan's ability to repair roads

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Ben Hildebrand, left, of Romulus, and foreman Michael Irish, of Birch Run, make repairs in August 2019 to the I-94 bridge over Middlebelt.

Washington — Lawmakers are pushing Congress to cancel a $7.6 billion rescission in highway funds, affecting $220 million for Michigan, that could make it difficult for states to plan for future construction or repair of roads and bridges. 

Highway advocates had hoped that House lawmakers would include language to repeal the rescission in stop-gap funding legislation, but the Democratic-controlled chamber last week left it out while passing the bill. 

The rescission would apply to states' unobligated balance of highway contract authority as of Sept. 30, which refers to certain federal highway funds authorized and available to the states over multiple years (though some types of highway funds are exempt). It would take effect next year.

"It takes away the ability to schedule those dollars, so it ties their hands in that regard," said Joung Lee, policy director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. 

"It really hampers project planning and development."

The rescission would not directly affect the Michigan Department of Transportation's ability to fund projects, but would reduce the agency's flexibility for about $220 million of contract authority, spokesman Jeff Cranson said.

"We pick and choose how much to spend on each program — safety, bridge, pavement, carpool et cetera — based on our annual investment strategy. If the rescission reduces one or more of those pots, it potentially reduces our ability to spend as much as we might desire in a certain program," Cranson said.  

"Say we get direction to double the safety program. We can reduce the investment in other programs and free up obligation authority to spend on safety, but the contract authority or balance available to spend in safety may no longer be available because it was rescinded."

The Federal Highway Administration is expected to announce in October preliminary figures for the amount rescinded for each state. 

"We would prefer they cancel this," Cranson said. "It takes away discretion and flexibility from the folks on the ground planning and executing projects and reacting to the unanticipated and inevitable issues that arise."

The senators who oversee highway policy and funding in June wrote to congressional leaders negotiating the stop-gap funding deal and asked them to include a provision to repeal the $7.6 billion rescission. They didn't. 

The Republican-led Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed a stand-alone bill that includes a fix for the rescission and included it in the next five-year surface transportation legislation.  

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican who chairs the panel, "is continuing to work to repeal the rescission before it goes into effect in July 2020," a spokeswoman said last week. 

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has also been supportive of repealing the rescission, Lee said.

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden

Rep. Paul Mitchell, who sits on the transportation panel, said he voted against the stop-gap spending bill in part because it didn't include a fix for the rescission. 

"There's a number of reasons but that's among them," said Mitchell, R-Dryden. "It's a concern for all states." 

Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, also wants to see the issue resolved. 

“Given the state of Michigan’s crumbling roads and bridges, now is not the time to make drastic cuts to federal highway funding," she said.  

"Critical infrastructure projects like the Beck Road Improvement Corridor in my district are already having trouble getting federal resources and a massive cut next year will only make it more difficult to make desperately needed repairs and improvements.”

Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills

The hope is still that lawmakers will include the repeal in some other must-pass piece of legislation before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, Lee said.

This month, a coalition of 41 transportation and highway groups wrote to congressional leadership urging action on the matter, saying it's needed to provide "stability" to federal surface transportation programs.

"Rescinding highway contract authority impedes the ability of states to meet their individual infrastructure needs and disrupts transportation planning and timely delivery of projects," the coalition wrote. 

"The planned rescission next summer is already starting to impact project construction, which will delay mobility, quality of life and economic benefits provided by these projects if unaddressed soon." 

The $7.6 billion rescission was included in the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation or FAST Act as what amounts to a budgetary gimmick to make it appear to cost less than it did, lawmakers have said. 

In Lansing, negotiations over new revenue to fix the state's crumbling infrastructure faltered this month between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the GOP Legislature. The talks have been postponed while the governor and Legislature try to pass and sign budget bills before an Oct. 1 deadline.

Republican leadership has balked at Whitmer's proposed 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax increase but they and the governor could not agree on a consensus alternative.

Among the GOP proposals are switching the dedication of the sales tax revenue on fuel purchases from education and local governments to roads and a teacher pension debt swap proposal that could free up nearly $1 billion annually for roads and bridges. Whitmer as rejected both ideas, in part, for undermining education aid.