WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House Transportation Committee chairman said Thursday that a six-year, $450 billion highway bill is unlikely to clear Congress this fall, and that an extension of current transportation funding formulas is likely.
Rep. James Oberstar's statement, while not a surprise, deals a setback to states and construction firms that argue a boost in federal spending on highways and mass transit is urgently needed to stem rising job losses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other associations tied to infrastructure investment are preparing to step up lobbying next week to avoid a delay in overhauling federal transportation policy.
A spokesman for Mr. Oberstar (D., Minn.), told Dow Jones Newswires that he still hoped to have a vote on his bill later this month but that passage by the full Congress is unrealistic, given Washington's focus on health-care reform and other issues.
"Under the most realistic scenarios, that's going to be very, very difficult given the position the Senate is holding and the White House is holding," Jim Berard, a spokesman for Mr. Oberstar, said of the prospect of a new bill being passed this fall.
The current law expires Sept. 30.
The debate will now turn to how long to extend current funding levels.
President Barack Obama seeks an 18-month extension, pushing the debate off until after the 2010 elections.
Mr. Oberstar and other Democrats have indicated they would seek a shorter delay, in hopes of getting a new law in place as early as next spring.
Janet Kavinoky, the Chamber of Commerce's director of transportation and infrastructure, said the uncertainty caused by a lengthy delay will prompt businesses to hold off on major purchases and contracts, further crimping the economy.
"We need the space in the national agenda to deal with this issue," Ms. Kavinoky said. "I think we'll be able to see that more clearly once [the healthcare debate] is finished."