ABC News' Lisa Stark reports: Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., didn't just stop extensions of unemployment and health insurance benefits with his "hold' on these funding measures last week, he also stopped an extension of the Highway Trust Fund for 30 days. That means the fund cannot be used to pay for any of its programs or its employees.
So, the Department of Transportation as of Monday morning, furloughed 2,000 federal workers. DOT says that number could climb if this stalemate over funding drags on. Employees affected include federal inspectors overseeing highway projects on federal lands. If the inspectors aren't there, the projects must shut down. DOT says that will affect 41 critical construction projects from Alaska to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed.”
Without the highway trust fund dollars, the federal government also cannot reimburse states for any ongoing construction projects. There is usually a federal-state match and the states get reimbursed on a real-time basis. States are scheduled to get some $768 million dollars from the feds this week. They will get the money eventually, but will have to figure out how to make do without, for now.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (ASHTO) will hold a news conference today to try to put pressure on Congress to restore the money. In a press release, the group said that "Millions of dollars and thousands of projects, people and paychecks are on the line at a time when the industry can ill afford another set back."
DOT says that federal programs that help states combat drunk driving and reduce traffic injuries are also affected. The federal part of those efforts, funded by the Highway Trust Fund, will come to a halt today.
Some wonder whether the administration is playing its own game of high-stakes political chicken. On Friday, Congressman James Oberstar, D- Minn., Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, indicated that furloughs might not be necessary if it appeared that funding might be restored quickly. Department of Transportation officials insisted there is no way to know how quickly Congress will act, and that the department cannot spend money it is not authorized to spend.
As an officials with ASHTO said late Sunday, "One Senator has thrown a wrench in the entire works. This is no way to run a railroad." Or in this case - a highway.