The faltering Highway Trust Fund has won a reprieve, with final congressional approval July 30 of a $7-billion infusion from the general fund. It is the second bailout for the fund in less than a year. But the relief only will keep the trust fund’s highway account solvent through Sept. 30 or perhaps a little beyond. After lawmakers return from their August break, they quickly must find still more money to shore up the fund past that date.

Oberstar pushing a six-year bill.
Oberstar pushing a six-year bill.

The short-term fix “will at least get us through the August recess and make sure that contractors and states are receiving reimbursements in a timely manner from the federal government,” says American Highway Users Alliance President Greg Cohen. But, he adds, “We need a major fix [so] Congress will not continue to bail out the trust fund incrementally every few months.”

A longer trust-fund remedy is intertwined with a House-Senate dispute over how to reauthorize highway and transit programs. The deadline there also is Sept. 30, when the Safe, Affordable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), lapses. Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors’ highway and transportation division, says, “They are going to have to address this in one way or another in September.”

Senate committees have cleared an 18-month SAFETEA-LU extension, and the Obama administration supports that concept. But House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is pushing his six-year, $500-billion reauthorization bill. Speaking on the House floor before the chamber approved the $7-billion trust- fund measure, Oberstar made his views clear, saying, “This is an infusion, not an extension.” Oberstar on July 23 had proposed only a $3-billion patch for the trust fund. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) on July 28 introduced a bill hiking that to $5 billion. When the measure got to the House floor, it was up to $7 billion. The House approved the bill on July 29, and Senate passage came the next day.

House and Senate lawmakers will have to resolve a dispute over reauthorizing highway and transit programs by Sept. 30.

But that only ended round one of the highway fight. Congress will not return until Sept. 8, which makes approving a multiyear highway-transit bill by the end of the month nearly impossible. Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president and manager of government affairs, says, “Our strong preference would be to see a full six-year bill passed, but the likelihood of that happening grows less as the time goes by.” She adds, “They are going to have to do at least a six-month extension....I think it’s going to be closer to 12.”