What would a possible government shutdown mean for the nation’s infrastructure?


Update: Both houses of Congress passed and President Biden signed a continuing resolution on September 30th, which will keep the federal government operating without interruption until November 17th.

Despite bipartisan efforts from the U.S. Senate to avert a government shutdown, (at this time) U.S. House Republicans so far are unable to take up and pass a 6-week continuing resolution to keep the government open after Sunday, October 1st, making a likely government shutdown imminent. While the duration of any potential shutdown is unclear, House Republicans have still not coalesced around a path forward for Fiscal Year 2024, and the implications of a government shutdown would begin on Monday.

Immediately, this means that many, though not all, federal government functions are suspended, and many federal employees are furloughed. Services that the government deems “essential,” such as those related to law enforcement and public safety continue; however, these essential employees work without pay until the shutdown ends.

Overall, a government shutdown hamstrings the work of federal agencies that are responsible for our nation’s infrastructure systems, creating uncertainty for ongoing projects and preventing new projects from getting underway. Operations and processes that millions of Americans rely on every day would experience the effects of a shutdown.

Transportation Security Administration (or TSA) personnel and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers—both deemed essential federal employees—work without pay during government shutdowns, which may result in delays due to staffing shortages. Other FAA activities, such as Passenger Facility Charge approvals, the training of new air traffic controllers, aviation rulemaking, the testing of new technologies and safety standards, and most functions related to administration, would cease.

Further exacerbating issues at the FAA, is Congress’ failure to approve an extension of FAA programs after the current reauthorization bill also expired on September 30th. This failure means funding authority for the Airport and Airways Trust Fund also lapses and that any grant payments, contract payments or purchases will be halted on October 1st, until an extension is passed.

A shutdown of federal agencies also has negative effects on the state and local government agencies that depend on federal funds. Federal programs, such as the popular Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (or RAISE) program, which public entities rely on to support road, rail, transit, and port projects, would experience a slowdown if federal operations are put on hold. State departments of transportation could become hesitant to authorize new highway construction projects while federal funding is uncertain.

Federal agencies have released contingency plans in the event of a government shutdown. According to the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) plan, over 26,000 employees would stay on the job because their work is “necessary to protect life and property.” Some 18,000 employees would be furloughed. Employees at the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would not be impacted because they are paid out of the Highway Trust Fund and other sources that are not dependent on annual government funding.

Meanwhile, at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 10,000 employees would be furloughed and activities such as the issuance of permits, the approval of state requests, and the awarding of new grants would all cease. By briefly ceasing environmental reviews by the EPA during a shutdown, infrastructure projects across the country can be delayed as they await permitting.

Another unique issue from this shutdown is that the Disaster Relief Fund has been seriously depleted in the past few months from recent severe weather events and  now approximately contains $2.6 billion. This drop means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency  has had to pause obligations for $1.5 billion in public assistance projects to make sure it has funding for more immediate needs as they arise.

So far, more than 1,600 Public Assistance projects from across the country have been paused. Unless Congress can provide approximately $12 billion in supplemental funding for the Disaster Relief Fund, these projects will remain on hold. Congress failing to address this issue and causing a government shutdown means that these projects will continue to be on hold and could create a situation where other projects need to be sidelined.

ASCE strongly urges Congress to ensure the continuity of government functions and keep the U.S. government open. Recent investments in the nation’s infrastructure represent a strong step toward reversing decades of underinvestment in our critical systems, however a government shutdown does not allow these investments to be implemented efficiently or effectively. The nation’s civil engineers are up to the challenge to maintain and modernize our infrastructure systems, but it is up to Congress to ensure that the federal government is a reliable partner.

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