Transportation Shielded in Federal Shutdown

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Date: 
Fri, 2011-04-08 03:00

By: John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @jboydjoc.

Essential air, waterway services continue; highway programs unaffected
Much of the freight transportation system will operate normally in the increasingly likely event of a federal government shutdown, as essential services from air traffic control to barge locks keep working despite the political impasse over the budget.

The largest federal transportation programs, those linked to the Highway Trust Fund to cover road and bridge spending across the country, will be not affected because Congress already extended them through the end of September.

Customs and transportation security services remain in place, at least for essential workers. But industry officials this week were trying to nail down specifics of whether furloughs of any workers deemed nonessential could indirectly slow processing of transactions. Coast Guard safety operations would be maintained along the inland and coastal waterways.

A potential shutdown loomed Friday after three-way budget talks between House and Senate leaders and President Obama failed to agree on new cuts and policy changes for the rest of the 2011 budget year.

A shutdown means roughly 800,000 nonessential federal employees will have to stop work, power down their computers and turn off their portable communications devices.

It would cause undetermined ripple effects as paychecks for many federal workers are pared or delayed and more broadly across the economy as tax refunds slow down at the peak of tax filing season.

In addition, it could interrupt non-highway construction projects backed by federal funds if they rely on money out of the 2011 budget. Agency officials as late as midday April 8 were still trying to determine which projects could be hampered, and how that might disrupt contracts or add to their eventual costs.

But even as essential services operate, a range of federal transport agencies' normal activities would be hit. Just within the Department of Transportation - which does not oversee most waterway or port-related federal services -- a government shutdown would require furloughs of 17,870 employees while 40,141 would stay on the job. About 15,000 of the cuts would come from the Federal Aviation Administration, nearly a third of that agency's total.

No furloughs would hit the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have to idle 381 of its 591 staff. Almost all transit agency workers would stay home, as regular federal payments to transit agencies would reportedly stop. Half the Federal Railroad Administration?í?ªs work force would go on furlough, as would half at the Maritime Administration.

The FRA administers all the grants in the president's High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program. While those were funded outside the fiscal 2011 budget which is the focus of the broken down budget talks between Congress and the White House, FRA grant activity could slow to a crawl without staff to keep a lot of that work going. Instead, those still working would be focused on rail safety matters. This comes just as the FRA is sorting through nearly $10 billion in passenger rail project requests that came in this week for $2.43 billion in newly available grant money.

At the Surface Transportation Board, about the only ones exempt from furloughs would be the two current board members, who are presidential appointees. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has 528 positions attached to his office; 403 would be furloughed. The inspector general's office of 457 would have to tell 379 to stay home.

Source: The Journal of Commerce

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