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With cutback-minded legislators like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) clamoring for budget reductions at every level, federal transportation funding faces drastic cuts. Photo: U.S. Senate

In mid-September, the U.S. Senate once again saved the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by passing stopgap legislation to temporarily extend funding to aviation and highway programs.

Democratic leaders applauded the move to extend FAA funding through January 2012 and highway, transit, and rail programs through March. They were particularly happy to avert more airline travel mayhem. Said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “About 2 million people are breathing a sigh of relief because they're going to have jobs.”

The potential shutdown was halted after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) stopped trying to block the extension over a proviso that states use federal funding for bike paths, walking trails, and other parks and transportation augmentation. He withdrew his protest when members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee pledged to lift the requirement.

With Republican members of both houses of Congress calling for a lean-and-hungry approach to funding programs, purse strings most likely will be tightened. However, many ultra-aggressive cutting measures have been stymied. An attempt led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to drastically cut transportation funding was squelched by Democratic opposition.

Left-leaning legislators aren't the only ones striking out against cutting federal investment in roads and bridges to the bone.

On Sept. 20, protestors gathered in Chicago's Union Station, a hub for local and regional train commuters, to voice support for public transit, railroad, and ground transportation programs. Joseph Costello, executive director of northeastern Illinois' Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), warned against underfunding transportation infrastructure to the point of neglect. “If we were to build the RTA system from scratch, it would cost $42 billion,” he says. “We need to take care of that valuable asset.”

While they applaud the extension, public officials, interest groups, and association leaders want legislators to propose concrete funding measures instead of relying on a continuous stream of temporary solutions. “The longer it takes to pass a multiyear bill, the more expensive the problems are to solve,” says Janet Kavinoky, vice president of the Americans for Transportation Mobility Coalition. “Conditions get worse; land, labor, and materials get more expensive.” Highway and transit investments, she says, facilitate long-term economic growth and create jobs.”