Legislation to add $10.8 billion to the ailing Highway Trust Fund, which could keep the fund in the black into next spring, is moving ahead in Congress as the House passed the measure on July 15 by a strong 367-55 vote.
The House-approved trust-fund "patch" has the same bottom line as a measure that the Senate Finance Committee cleared on July 10. But the two bills use different mixes of revenue-raisers to offset the $10.8 billion that they would transfer to the trust fund from other sources, primarily the general fund.
The next step would be a Senate floor vote, either on the Finance Committee version or the House-passed bill.
Congress is racing against the clock to put in place a short-term trust-fund fix before the August recess. The trust fund’s weakening highway account is projected to start showing a deficit around the end of August, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.
If no new revenue is found for the trust fund, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx has said his department would have to slow down its aid reimbursements to state DOTs, starting on Aug. 11.
President Obama, in a July 14 speech at the Federal Highway Administration's research center in Virginia, said that if Congress doesn't save the trust fund, the consequences would be severe. He said nearly 700,000 jobs could be put at risk and more than 100,000 projects "could be slowed or stopped."
Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America's highway and transportation division, is confident that Congress will stave off that dire outcome. "They're going to do a patch," he says. "There's no two ways about it."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the prime author of the measure his chamber approved, said that the $10.8-billion trust-fund injection would provide enough money to keep the fund healthy through next May 31.
He also said the measure "gives the committee time to deliberate and produce a longer-term solution" for the trust fund.
In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said on July 10 that his initial position was to go for a bill that would run only through Dec. 31. But then, Wyden added, after discussions with the committee's top Republican, Orrin Hatch (Utah), "It was clear that it would not be possible to reach a bipartisan agreement at less than $10 billion."
The committee ended up approving a $10.8-billion infusion.
Industry officials are no doubt relieved to see the congressional effort to keep the trust fund from falling into the red. But their bigger priority is a multi-year highway-transit reauthorization, which, they hope, would include additional revenue. Some in Congress say they will push for a long-term measure./
Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president, notes that besides its revenue patch, the House bill has language to reauthorize the highway and transit programs through next May. But the Senate Finance measure lacks that provision. The current authorization law, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, expires Sept. 30.
Connor says that she understands that there are efforts in the Senate to try to convince key lawmakers there to limit the short-term trust-fund bill to the end of December. "Whether they can do that or not, I don't know," she says.
AGC's Deery says that some states have reserve highway contract authority from past years that they can use for projects past Sept. 30. But he adds that, "A lot of states [are] going to err on the side of caution, as far as putting projects out."
Deery says, "Unless they know they've got the state funds, I think they're going to hold back."
Connor says that construction and transportation industry officials "still feel that a shorter extension is better" than one that lasts until the end of May. She adds, "Whether that shorter extension runs through December or perhaps very early into 2015, we want a short-term extension because we want to keep Congress's feet to the fire" to produce a longer authorization.
Pete Ruane, American Road & Transportation Builders Association CEO, said in a statement after the House and Senate committees approved their measures that his group appreciates those steps to avert a stoppage of federal transportation aid. But he added, "These actions must not be the latest punt-and-leave-the-stadium strategy that has plagued the federal surface transportation program for far too long."
Ruane called for Congress and the Obama administration to come up with "a long-term and sustainable Highway Trust Fund solution" by the end of 2014.
Story updated on July 15 to include House vote, additional comments.