The U.S. Senate on Wednesday, Sept. 10, approved by voice vote moving $8 billion to the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to run out of money by the end of this month. The action puts the federal government a step closer to keeping money flowing for highway projects.
“The Senate should be commended for acting swiftly to address the immediate needs of the trust fund,” Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said following the vote.
The Highway Trust Fund comes from the federal gasoline tax, but U.S. drivers have reacted to soaring fuel prices in 2008 by reducing their driving for eight straight months through June. “The lesson is clear,” Peters said. “It’s time to embrace a new approach to transportation that does not rely on high fuel consumption and instead directs funds where they are actually needed.”
HR 6532, which redirects the $8 billion from general tax funds, went back to the House for a second vote Thursday, Sept. 11, after being amended by the Senate. The Senate measure provides the aid this year; the House bill had made it available in fiscal 2009, starting Oct. 1. The House passed the amended bill 376-29 and sent it to President Bush, who is expected to sign it this week.
“Congress has acted quickly to protect states from the pain of a funding shortfall, but the fundamental problems that plague the nation’s transportation system are far from healed,” Peters said. “Congress must now address the pressing need for meaningful reforms to the way we raise and invest transportation funds with the same bipartisan spirit and energy as it did in voting for these additional resources.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, credited the concerted lobbying efforts of the American Trucking Associations and other highway user groups, highway construction firms and state and local governments with helping to move the legislation forward.
“We’re pleased to see that the administration and Congress recognize the significant need to sustain the nation’s infrastructure, which is a vital link to the health of the U.S. economy,” said Bill Graves, ATA president and chief executive officer. “Restoring these critical funds is an important step in solving the complex problem of funding our transportation network.”
The federal government may need to temporarily cut payments to states as early as next week because of the current shortfall. Peters had said Friday, Sept. 5, that in order to allow for continued highway payments to states while Congress acts, the federal government would make funds available on a weekly pro-rated basis; for example, if there are only enough funds to cover 80 percent of requests, the highway agency will pay only 80 percent of each.
Peters said that states would receive the balance of the funds in the following week, and then any new requests also would be dealt with on a pro-rated basis. She also said DOT would review its personnel and purchasing policies and consult with other federal agencies receiving highway funds to find ways to free up additional funding for reimbursing state partners.