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Transportation Dept. Furloughs Thousands of Workers After Highway Funds Expire

Some Transportation components can no longer carry out "core functions."

The Transportation Department on Friday furloughed 3,700 employees, sending the workers home without pay after Congress allowed authorization for federal highway programs to expire.

The workers were a casualty of an ongoing debate over infrastructure spending. A package to fund roads, bridges and other projects has bipartisan support and the White House’s backing, but congressional Democrats are delaying a House vote until they can negotiate an agreement on a larger measure to boost the social safety net and support other Biden administration priorities. The infrastructure bill—which already passed the Senate—is set to reauthorize the surface transportation programs, but the delays allowed the authorization to expire Friday morning. 

The Federal Highway Administration is the most impacted entity at Transportation, according to department contingency plans, with 94% of its more than 2,700 employees slated for furlough. The Federal Transit Administration was planning to send home 88% of its roughly 600 workers, while the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also expected to feel significant impacts. 

The Federal Highway Administration said it would cease all operations not necessary to protect life and property or funded through a source other than the Highway Trust Fund, similar to how most agencies operate under a government shutdown. Congress narrowly avoided a shutdown Thursday, which—absent the authorization lapse—would have barely impacted the agency. Instead, it has ceased all federal-aid highway programs, stopped providing apportioned funding to states and canceled all construction projects relying on funding not previously obligated. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has ceased much of its safety research and development activity, while the Federal Transit Administration said it would not continue any “core agency functions.” The agency will not execute any grants, cooperative agreements, contracts, purchase orders or travel authorizations. It will stop conducting environmental, legal, civil rights and other reviews of projects under development.  

“The administration is continuing to work closely with Congress to swiftly reauthorize surface transportation programs and bring back the approximately 3,700 hard-working employees who are temporarily furloughed right now,” a Transportation spokesperson said. The department is seeking to mitigate the impacts of the authorization lapse, the person added, noting payments to state transportation departments, transit agencies and others with existing grants can continue, “allowing ongoing projects to proceed without interruption.” 

Employees furloughed during previous authorization lapses have received back pay, but Congress will have to act proactively to ensure that happens again. The number of impacted employees at Transportation overall is much smaller than during a funding lapse, when the department would send home 22,000 staff. 

Congress is currently working on a stopgap measure to reauthorize highway programs for 30 days, The Hill reported on Friday. Lawmakers and the White House were still scrambling Friday to reach a deal that would allow the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the highway trust fund reauthorization it contains, to quickly pass the House. President Biden was expected to go to Capitol Hill to persuade reluctant Democrats to strike an agreement on the other package so it could move in conjunction with the infrastructure measure.