House mulls $7bn 'patch' for highway trust fund(2)

The interim measure would keep the federal fund for the US’ highway system solvent through the end of the government’s current fiscal year in September. Congress will continue working on a six-year, $500bn transportation reauthorisation bill to provide a longer-term source of federal financing for US infrastructure.

Faced with an impending cash shortfall in the federal fund for the US highway system, the House of Representatives is considering a short-term patch for the Highway Trust Fund that could total up to $7 billion.

Jim Oberstar, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, supports such a short-term measure to keep the fund solvent, but does not have a target for how much it would cost, said Jim Berard, a spokesperson for the committee.

He said a widely reported $7 billion short-term funding solution “seems to be the high end of the estimates we are hearing”. The money would come from the government’s general fund and tide the trust fund past 30 September, the end of the government’s current fiscal year.

The US Department of Transportation estimates the trust fund may be out of money by the end of August. Faced with a similar problem last year, Congress patched up the highway trust fund with an emergency $8 billion interim reauthorisation.

But this year, because Congress is in the midst of planning a larger, six year, $500 billion transportation reauthorisation bill for the new fiscal year, the precise length of an interim reauthorisation has sparked fierce debate in Washington.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has proposed that Congress pass an immediate, 18-month highway reauthorisation to replenish the trust fund with up to $25 billion. Congressional leaders, including Oberstar, oppose this strategy. Last month, 43 representatives signed a letter to President Obama arguing that a short-term reauthorisation would leave states “without the certainty and reliable funding source” they need to move their projects forward.

“That’s why we have a six year bill, so they can see their allocation,” Berard said. With an 18-month authorization, “states that are doing planning for construction do not have the ability to look down the line,” he said.

Still, Congressional leaders agree with the administration that their first priority is to keep the trust fund solvent. So any action to tide over the trust fund would come before the full reauthorisation bill, Berard said. Most likely, it would come before Congress leaves for their August recess, he added.

Action on the larger reauthorisation bill is being slowed by Congress’ consideration of a massive healthcare overhaul. The overhaul, a key promise made by President Obama during his campaign for office, is currently a priority for the House Ways and Means committee, which handles taxation matters and would have to iron out a revenue code for the transportation bill before it can move through the Transportation and Infrastructure committee, Berard said.

Most likely, that would be in September, after Congress returns from its August recess, he said.