The nation's top business lobbyist, Thomas J. Donohue, says Congress absolutely must pass a highway bill by May. Last year, he said the drop-dead date was April.
The highway bill stalled in 2004 as the White House vowed to limit spending and members of Congress battled over how funds would be distributed to states.
Those same obstacles are still in place this year, but so is Donohue's urgent call to Congress. The president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is urging lawmakers to jump the hurdles and pass a multiyear highway spending bill.
"TEA-21, the nation's core surface transportation program, has got to be reauthorized by May," Donohue said when introducing the Chamber's annual state of American Business report earlier this month. "The Chamber and Americans for Transportation Mobility will be working very hard to get that done. We need to give the states assurances that we're moving forward."
States are moving ahead with their own transportation spending plans even without federal guidance. Many state legislatures began their year the same week as Congress and transportation is a front burner issue across the country.
In Virginia, the speaker of the House of Delegates proposed adding $1 billion to the state's transportation budget over the next 18 months. Averse to raising taxes, Virginia lawmakers are banking on an improving economy to raise the money for the state's budget, including the transportation portion. They also are looking at raising fines levied for driver infractions such as speeding. Virginia Republicans also say they want to facilitate public-private partnerships for transportation projects, circumventing the need for tax money to pay for roads.
Shippers are suffering in the meantime, RHC Logistics President and CEO Jerry Ulm says. The flooring materials that Ulm's Fostoria, Ohio-based company manufactures and moves travel mostly on the nation's roadways. The lack of a national highway spending plan translates directly to logistical problems.
"It's been a progressive matter over the last three years that we've seen the highway systems going down, the condition of them," Ulm said. "And the congestion around major cities is just amazing. We're having to route trucks at odd hours."
RHC Logistics used to route trucks by the shortest distance but now puts a premium on speed regardless of increased distance. That, Ulm said, results in more money spent on fuel and driver wages due to more miles being driven.
Shippers aren't the only ones who are fed up.
Voters across the country also took matters into their own hands last November by approving a record number of transportation-related ballot initiatives, indicating a willingness to spend their own money for transportation projects.
Actions at the state and local levels by voters have called into question the future of the federal role in transportation funding. Some even doubt the future of the gas tax system of transportation finance. But transportation consultant Alan Pisarski said any such pronouncement is premature.
"The post-gas-tax era is really not yet. We're talking 20 years from now, but we need to prepare for it. We need to plan for it."
In the meantime, states are limping along but struggling to plan expensive, long-term projects with an unknown future revenue stream.
Ohio Department of Transportation Director Gordon Proctor said his state's transportation planning can continue for only another six to nine months without details about federal funding levels.
"We've been basically carrying ourselves these past two years in bonding," Proctor said. "That is finite. We can't do that much longer."
State DOTs are part of a well-organized lobbying coalition urging Congress to get moving on a highway bill, just as they did last year.
But Washington's leading transportation lobbying groups say lawmakers have more incentive to pass a bill this year because of election year promises and because election year partisanship is now on the back burner – or at least generates less heat.
"They're on the spot," Associated General Contractors CEO Stephen Sandherr said. "And they've got to deliver to their constituents."
Last year, the House, Senate and White House came close to a compromise $299 billion bill, which is expected to be the starting point for debate this year.
One proposal by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., would make the next highway bill a five-year rather than a six-year bill. That is because one year that the bill was supposed to cover has already elapsed, so there's no need to include spending for that period.