Highway interests got good news on July 10 when the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a 2009 spending bill with an $8-billion infusion for the Highway Trust Fund. If enacted, it would erase a projected $3.2-billion deficit in the fund. But there’s House opposition to the idea, and few, if any, 2009 spending bills will be become law soon. That leaves advocates of the trust-fund “fix” seeking a backup bill to carry it.

Murray Olver
Murray included an $8-billion shift from the general fund to the trust fund in the 2009 transportation spending bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. She says that without the money, 2009 highway spending would have to be cut 34%. But the House transportation appropriations subcommittee didn’t include the trust-fund provision in its version of the 2009 bill. Panel Chairman Olver says House appropriators didn’t create the shortfall, “nor is it this committee’s responsibility to make up the difference.”

The Treasury Dept. projected a $3.2-billion 2009 deficit in the trust fund’s highway account. Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag says the deficit will grow as high gas prices lead to declines in fuel use. Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) says if revenue isn’t added, highway aid would have to be cut 34% in 2009. The Federal Highway Administration’s acting chief, James Ray, disagrees. He told state officials on July 8 the deficit “would not result in a large program cut in FY 2009,” but added that “legislative action is needed to ensure the states can rely on prompt payments for their highway projects.”

A transportation spending bill may not provide the answer. The House transportation appropriations subcommittee didn’t put the trust-fund aid in the 2009 bill it approved on June 20. Panel Chairman John Olver (D-Mass.) says, “This shortfall is not of this committee’s making, nor is it this committee’s responsibility to make up the difference.”

Congress may turn to an omnibus bill to fund roads and other programs into early 2009. “That kind of uncertainty doesn’t help the overall situation,” says David Bauer, American Road and Transportation Builders Association senior vice president. “We are continuing to make it clear that we want to see action as soon as possible, hopefully before they break for the elections.”

Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors’ highway and transportation division, says one possible vehicle for the trust-fund fix is a new supplemental spending bill planned by Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

Another source says the trust-fund money will end up in an aviation extension, needed by Sept. 30. Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies’ vice president, says other options include bills to prevent millions of people from paying the alternative minimum tax or extending expiring tax breaks.