As the Highway Trust Fund's looming shortfall sparks a U.S. Dept. of Transportation cash-conserving plan, construction and state transportation officials will have to wait a bit longer for the Senate Finance Committee to act on a short-term rescue for the diminishing fund.
After late-night negotiations with the staff of the committee's top Republican, Orrin Hatch (Utah), Wyden said at a June 26 committee meeting that he had pared his $9-billion "patch" to $7.6 billion. Revisions included dropping a $1.4-billion tax hike on heavy trucks and adding a $750-million transfer to the highway fund from a fund for leaking underground storage tanks.
The Congressional Budget Office says the trust fund will need an injection of about $8 billion to stay in the black through December. Industry officials a hope that passing a five-month fix will put pressure on Congress to produce a much bigger deal in an expected lame-duck session: a multi-year highway-transit bill.
Greg Cohen, American Highway Users Alliance CEO, sees the Senate developments as a step forward. "This a significantly positive thing for the highway community," he says. However, there is little time to strike a deal. U.S. DOT estimates the trust fund's highway account will drop into a deficit by the end of August. Congress needs to pass a trust-fund fix by Aug. 1, when lawmakers start a month-long break.
Underscoring the crisis, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx notified state DOTs and transit agencies on July 1 that, unless Congress approves new money, the agency will husband its trust-fund cash by releasing highway and transit aid only twice a month, starting on Aug. 11. DOT will end its current daily reimbursements on Aug. 8.
Wyden on June 26 told reporters the committee "made some real headway," but added, "We've got a lot to do." He says, "I can assure you that the majority and the minority staff of the Finance Committee is not going to be reading a lot of paperbacks over the Fourth of July recess, and they'll be working hard to pull this together."
Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association senior vice president, says she was discouraged that Senate Finance didn't vote on June 26. But Whitted sees the new bipatisan talks as a hopeful sign. She says, "It sounds to me like they're working very hard to come up with something that both sides can agree to and that Dave Camp and the House side can agree to."