- Associated Press - Saturday, July 12, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - An ongoing congressional stalemate that threatens federal highway aid flowing to states won’t stop any roadwork in Louisiana, at least for the next few months, according to state transportation department officials.

Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Sherri LeBas said the agency has enough money to keep road repairs and construction on track in the short-term. But the department is working on backup plans for handling the looming money crunch if Washington leaders don’t reach a deal soon on the federal Highway Trust Fund.

For now, LeBas said she’s not in panic mode.

“Not at this time. I’m hoping that they will fix the problem. We’re coming up with contingency plans. So, at this time we’re going to continue letting our projects and paying our contractors,” she said in a recent interview.

The Obama administration has said the federal government will have to ration payments to states within three weeks without a new infusion of cash, and some states already have begun to delay or cancel construction projects due to the uncertainty of federal aid.

Organizations representing state and local officials and transportation advocacy groups have sounded alarm bells about the problem.

“Louisiana’s transportation system is a cornerstone of our economy. Without safe, well-maintained roads and bridges, we become an immobile society, and our long-term business climate suffers,” said Ken Perret, a retired assistant state transportation secretary and president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association.

Congress is working on legislation to keep highway aid flowing, but lawmakers so far are divided over how to pay for it. The gasoline tax money that flows into the Highway Trust Fund has been falling short of spending.

“It is vitally important that our United States senators and representatives recognize that this is not a Democratic or Republican issue - it is an economic issue that also affects our citizens’ safety, mobility and quality of life,” Perret said in a statement.

Louisiana gets the majority of its highway funding from the federal government, receiving about $650 million a year in federal transportation funds. LeBas said the state has to put up a 10 percent or 20 percent match to draw down most of the money.

Because the federal money reimburses state payments to contractors after the spending is done, LeBas said her agency can continue making the numbers work for now.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has warned that without a new source of cash, the trust fund will run out of money by the end of August. Federal officials plan to begin stretching out payments Aug. 1. States have been told to expect a 28 percent reduction in aid on average.

“Come the next two weeks, if the federal government doesn’t act, then we’ll need to implement a contingency plan,” LeBas said.

She wouldn’t provide specifics but said her department is looking at how long it can stretch its upfront cash to pay for construction projects while awaiting federal reimbursement.

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