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July 28, 2020 3:15 PM, EDT

New COVID-19 Stimulus With Transportation Aid Stuck in Congress

Houston airportIn the Senate plan, the FAA's Airport Improvement Program would receive $10 billion. George Bush Intercontinental Airport by David J. Phillip/AP

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With much of the country looking to Washington for assistance, slow-moving negotiations on the next COVID-19 economic stimulus package have been marked by partisan disagreements.

Republicans who manage operations in the Senate have unveiled a $1 trillion measure, which Democrats in control of the House describe as insufficient. A House-passed package totals about $3 trillion.

At issue is the framework for myriad social assistance related to unemployment and housing that certain Democrats insist would benefit millions of out-of-work individuals, as well as frontline workers engaged in the freight supply chain.

Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi

“We cannot operate if we’re not even stipulating to a basic set of facts: the people are hurting, that unemployment is high and that we have a way to address this in terms of honoring heroes; testing, tracing, treatment, as well as money in the pockets of the American people, being respectful of them and understanding their needs,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said recently.

“We must stop playing partisan games and offering solutions only one party can get behind. We must begin bipartisan, bicameral negotiations on a bill that can be sent to the president by the end of next week,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, said July 29. “We must prioritize those programs that help us contain this virus, that help us protect vulnerable families and that will put us on the right track to reopening our economy.”

The Senate Republican leadership is pushing back on Democrats’ approach as they argue political calculations are at play in the negotiations. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) claimed, “The only reason I can see that Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Leader [Chuck Schumer] would sabotage negotiations is if, as some concluded when they killed police reform in June, they actually think bipartisan progress for the country would hurt their own political chances.”

The new emergency aid package Senate Republicans unveiled proposes $26.2 million for certain operations at the Office of the Secretary of Transportation.

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Additionally, under the bill the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program would receive $10 billion; the Essential Air Service to rural communities would receive $75 million; and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would receive $238,500. FMCSA’s funding would address increased administrative expenses to implement activities related to the pandemic.

“The pressures of working full time and educating multiple kids at home all at once are simply unsustainable over the long term,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said July 27. “With the additional resources this legislation provides, I believe we can give them greater confidence that we are getting our arms around this virus. That, I believe, is the key to unleashing the American economy and hitting our stride as a nation once again.”

Overall, the Senate measure aims to address concerns related to schools reopening, health care aid and employment. The House package proposes additional aid for agencies responding to the pandemic, as well as $15 billion for highway programs.

Around the country, key transportation stakeholders continue to press Congress for emergency relief to alleviate financial hardships caused by the pandemic. The American Association of Port Authorities is requesting that Congress allocate $1.5 billion for seaports.

“Without assistance from Congress to cover our pressing needs, we fear that ports will not be able to continue operations at the high level that Americans have come to depend on. We hope that you can provide critical emergency relief to ports as the next COVID-19 relief bill moves through Congress,” American Association of Port Authorities CEO Christopher Connor wrote to congressional leaders this month.

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The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials also has urged Congress to dedicate aid to departments of transportation in the form of an immediate infusion of about $37 billion.

“The need for federal funding for state DOTs remains urgent. It will prevent further disruptions to planned transportation projects and allow state DOT employees and transportation construction workers essential to planning and delivering these projects to remain on the job,” AASHTO’s leadership explained.

Meanwhile, the House kicked off its consideration of its bill that would fund operations at the U.S. Department of Transportation and its agencies. The fiscal 2021 transportation appropriations measure, scheduled for passage prior to August, would provide FMCSA $881 million for its operations. That funding proposal would be a $202 million increase from the fiscal 2020-enacted level and $179 million more than the president’s request.

In the Senate, funding leaders have yet to schedule consideration of their transportation appropriations bill. Congress needs to send to the president’s desk for enactment either fiscal 2021 funding legislation or temporary funding legislation to avert a shutdown of certain agencies at the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1.

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