SPECIAL REPORT: DOT to shut down on Tuesday

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 2/26/2010

Friday, Feb. 26, 2010 – As of Tuesday, March 2, a big chunk of the U.S. Department of Transportation will be shut down temporarily because of a lack of funding. Just how long it lasts will depend on Congress.

The stunning news came Friday after the Senate adjourned without passing legislation to extend surface transportation programs that were set to expire Sunday, Feb. 28.

As a result, 4,000 DOT employees will be at home without pay starting Tuesday, leaving only a skeleton crew to deal with matters of immediate safety.

Affected agencies include the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Federal Transit Authority and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For truckers, the shutdown will bring business such as audits, authority applications, MCS-150 updates and other paperwork issues to a grinding halt.

The shutdown will not immediately affect scale houses, which are run by state law enforcement agencies. However, because FMCSA provides funding to state agencies for commercial vehicle enforcement, the furlough will put reimbursements in jeopardy.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called an emergency press conference on Friday to shed light on the rare occurrence. The last government shutdown happened in 1995 and 1996 over disagreements about appropriations.

“The shutdown of the federal highway program means that the Federal Highway Administration won’t be able to reimburse states for highway or transit funds,” Oberstar told reporters.

The furlough and lack of funding mean no money from FMCSA to fund state commercial vehicle enforcement.

“None of that will happen because there will be no funding for it, and if there is a furlough on Tuesday there won’t be any personnel available for enforcement action,” Oberstar told Land Line.

Oberstar said the shutdown also affects the stimulus funds to states because there won’t be people in federal offices to process grants. He said some states could lose out because of the inaction.

The Highway Trust Fund has been surviving on a series of short-term extensions since the surface transportation law known as SAFETEA-LU technically expired in September 2009.

The U.S. House and Senate have been under tremendous pressure to extend the provisions of SAFETEA-LU beyond Sunday’s deadline.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, asked his colleagues on Friday to lend unanimous consent to a 30-day extension for highway programs offered by the House, but Sen. Jim Bunning, R-KY, did not consent, citing the fiscal ramifications of the $10 billion cost. Bunning’s threat of filibuster caused Reid to adjourn the Senate on Friday for the weekend. Senators are scheduled to return Tuesday with the matter only baby steps closer to resolution.

Oberstar said Friday that in order to get the DOT back to work as soon as possible, he would lend his support in the House to passing the $15 billion Senate version of jobs legislation, HR2847.

The jobs bill contains a provision for shoring up the Highway Trust Fund through the end of 2010. The House originally wanted the highway extension to last only through Sept. 30 as lawmakers work on a five- or six-year highway bill.

Tune in to Land Line and Land Line Now on Monday for continuing coverage of the shutdown and what it means for other agencies.

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