Senate Standoff Resolved

By Libby Casey

Federal transportation workers in Alaska may get back to work as soon as today .  Last night  the Senate reached a deal to move forward on a 10 billion dollar aid bill that includes transportation dollars and extends unemployment benefits. 

Both of Alaska’s Senators voted for it.  The final tally was 78 for passage and 19 Republicans against.

Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning had single-handedly blocked the popular bill since Thursday. Bunning wanted to see the bill paid for from stimulus funds rather than adding to the national debt, and finally agreed to put forth an amendment addressing payment yesterday, which failed.

Bunning’s stance put Senator Lisa Murkowski and her fellow Republican colleagues in a politically awkward tight spot while Democrats like Senator Mark Begich railed against the hold-up.

Programs that expired over the weekend include long term unemployment benefits, health care subsidies for the unemployed, highway funds, and a measure that boosted Medicare payments to doctors.

In Alaska, the halt in federal highway money put two projects on hold for a couple days: construction on the Coffman Cove dock and a road cleanup project in the Tongass National Forest.  The federal highway employees overseeing the projects have been on furlough.

State transportation projects with federal funding haven’t been affected, according to Jeff Ottesen, the Alaska Department of Transportation’s director of program development.  He says the state may be behind getting a weekly federal reimbursement to the tune of about 4 million dollars, but the money should eventually come in. In the meantime, Ottesen said yesterday that projects have proceeded with state funds.

What’s affecting state managed projects is, we’re still able to do the work, what’s being delayed is that reimbursement process.

Ottesen says, however, that D-O-T could not move forward on new projects.  That’s because employees in the Juneau office of the Federal Highway Administration have been on furlough and couldn’t give them the green-light.

For projects that we need approval to start, either a design start or a construction start, we’ll keep sending them over there, but basically they’ll be in their mailbox waiting for them to return to work.

Ottesen says it would’ve been far worse if the transportation funds continued to be locked up for weeks on end.

The bill passed by the Senate last night now goes to President Obama, who is expected to act today.


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