Transportation planners wait for money as the infrastructure plan stalls in Congress Democrats say they're close to a deal on the broad reconciliation bill, but transportation planners are anxious because a short-term extension on federal highway and transit programs runs out Sunday.

Transportation planners wait for money as the infrastructure plan stalls in Congress

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NOEL KING, HOST:

There's a joke in Midwestern and Northern states that goes like this. There are only two seasons - winter and construction. Winter is coming, and construction season is about to end. Because the Biden administration's infrastructure bill can't get a vote in Congress, there's a lot of uncertainty about what next construction season will look like. Here's NPR's David Schaper in Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The stretch of Interstate 80 cutting across the suburbs and exurbs southwest of Chicago is a busy but notoriously rough road. Eighty thousand vehicles a day travel on it. One-quarter are heavy trucks, many servicing e-commerce warehouse and distribution centers sprouting out of what used to be cornfields, yet lanes are frequently closed for pothole patching and repairs, and the more-than-half-century-old I-80 bridge over the Des Plaines River is in such poor shape, labor unions put up billboards warning, cross at your own risk.

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JOHN CONNOR: I had the advantage of growing up in Joliet in a place where, from my front door, I could see that I-80 bridge.

SCHAPER: That's Illinois state Senator John Connor at a news conference last week announcing a six-year, $1.2 billion project to replace the bridge and rebuild 16 miles of Interstate 80.

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CONNOR: This change that's going to occur in the next six years is going to be transformational. It's the biggest investment in this area's transportation infrastructure since Lyndon Baines Johnson was president.

SCHAPER: But while Illinois lawmakers recently raised the state's gas tax to help fund such projects, federal funding is needed, too - money included in President Biden's trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. And transportation planners from coast to coast are increasingly anxious over the bill being stalled in Congress.

BILL PANOS: We are heavily reliant on the federal money. It is more than half of our entire transportation budget.

SCHAPER: Bill Panos is North Dakota's director of transportation, and he says smaller rural states have fewer options for raising infrastructure funding on their own. And...

PANOS: Here in the Northern Plains and North Dakota, we have a construction season, which is rather small.

SCHAPER: That means delays in federal funding right now cause big problems because his agency is about to put next spring's projects out to bid.

PANOS: So this is right now the dawn of our construction season, and in fact, some of the delays in some of the federal funding, some of the uncertainty, has created delays in some of our projects right now. We have pushed off some of our projects.

SCHAPER: And North Dakota isn't alone. Jim Tymon is with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He says transportation planners were thrilled when the White House and Congress reached a bipartisan agreement this summer. But now...

JIM TYMON: It's incredibly frustrating, I think, to those of us in the transportation community to see it get this far and then to see it kind of stall for the last two or three months.

SCHAPER: Now, Tymon says, transportation planners, construction firms and their workers are in limbo because a short-term extension of transportation funding is about to expire.

TYMON: And that's changing the approach that a lot of state DOTs take in how they put projects out to bid. And as a result, you'll have less work for contractors to bid on and fewer jobs for construction workers.

SCHAPER: And without the long-term funding certainty that would be provided by the five-year bipartisan infrastructure bill, highway, rail and mass transit planners cannot make decisions about bigger projects that often take several years to complete. They hope the White House and Congress can figure out a way forward soon because the shovels are ready; they just need the federal funding.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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