Colorado’s U.S. reps scramble to keep $115M in federal highway funds

Six of Colorado’s seven representatives in Washington, D.C., signed onto a letter last week asking Congress to suspend the state’s obligation to pay back more than $100 million dollars in transportation funds, a sum that amounts to roughly 25 percent of the federal stimulus money received by the Colorado Department of Transportation for highways this year.

GOP Reps Lamborn and Coffman
GOP Reps Lamborn and Coffman

Although Republican Mike Coffman of the 6th Congressional District signed on to the letter, he later joined fellow Republican Doug Lamborn of the 5th District in a vote against the matter.

The state’s five Democratic representatives voted in favor of a three-month extension of the Transportation Equity Act.

Congress wrote the $8.7 billion “rescission” or funding pay-back into the law in order to squeeze the Act under 2005 budget limits. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, the intent was to find offsets to prevent the payback from taking effect, but Congress never found those offsets.

The act is known by the acronym SAFETEA-LU, (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, and Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users).

Staff for several of Colorado’s congressional delegation who voted for the bill expressed misgivings about the legislation generally, but pointed out that SAFETEA-LU was set to expire Sept. 30, which required them to act fast.

“Had Congress not extended [the act], all transportation funding would have stopped effective Monday,” Lara Cottingham, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from the 2nd Congressional District, said in an email.

“The alternative was to let transportation spending be shut down in a few days, Eric Wortman, spokesman for Democratic U.S. Rep. John Salazar of the 3rd district, said in an email. “An extension gives Congress the opportunity to continue working on the issue.”

All of the lawmakers’ offices conceded that the the matter of repayment required by the act would have to be revisited.

“This is still an important issue,” Cottingham said, “and Congressman Polis is working with the rest of the Colorado delegation to further minimize any impact of the rescission.”

“We are working closely with the Delegation on this” said Kristofer Eisenla, a spokesman for Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of the 1st Congressional District.

According to Leslie Oliver, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat from the 7th district, the pay-as-you-go rules passed earlier by the House made “rescinding the rescission” extremely difficult.

“Under the Act, any kind of funding increase on any bill has to be offset by some other funding,” she explained. “Had we rescinded the rescission there wasn’t enough money to offset that. It would have extended the debate longer in order to find the money.”

“It’s not ideal by any stretch of the imagination,” continued Oliver. “We would prefer to have the rescission fixed in the bill, because Colorado stands to lose a lot of money. That being said, we can’t take the risk of shutting down all federal highway transportation for months.”

Although U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey voted for the extension, spokesman Ben Marter said in an email that the Democrat from the 4th congressional district will work to “rescind the rescission” or find the money to pay it back when the extension goes to conference. Markey sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Obviously to cut off your nose to spite your face doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Marter said.

The coming expiration of the repayment suspension presented the Republican members of the delegation with particular difficulty.

Coffman signed onto sent the lawmakers’ letter, but then voted against the three-month extension, a perplexing course of action.

Coffman spokesman Nathaniel Sillin said the congressman’s vote had more to do with frustration than about policy.

“[The no vote] was out of protest,” said Sillin. Coffman, he explained, believes Congress should be voting on a full-scale reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act, rather then passing an extension.

In response to Republican opposition to the extension, the office of Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, pointed out to Streetsblog that the previous transportation bill went through 12 extensions “when the Republicans were in charge.”

Lamborn was the sole member of the Colorado delegation who did not sign the letter in support of rescinding the rescission. He also voted against the extension and declined to comment on the matter.

The letter, sent to House leaders and members of the transportation committee on Wednesday, borrowed language from a letter sent to all members of Congress from John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. It asked leaders to support the repeal the section in SAFETEA-LU that authorizes the rescission.

The legislators point out that Colorado has returned $214 million in “highway contract authority” since the 2005 fiscal year.

They further argue that with only days remaining in the current five-year measure, “most states have very few unobligated dollars remaining. This means that an additional $8.7 billion rescission will result in substantial, real program cuts, not merely a reduction of unused dollars on the books.”

This year’s rescission, according to the letter, would compel Colorado to return $114,683,752.

According to Streetsblog, while the Senate has been favoring an 18-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, its members are now also mulling a three-month extension—and thus a faster turnaround time for a new federal transportation infrastructure law.

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