FHWA reviews highway trust fund with state officials

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Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez told state highway officials on Tuesday, July 28, what to expect if the highway trust fund falls short in the coming weeks during a “no surprises” discussion.

“Unless we shore up the trust fund, we will have no other choice than to pay the states less frequently for road and bridge repairs,” Mendez said in a conference call with lead officials from 38 states and the District of Columbia. Mendez added that payments, currently made on a daily basis, could be made weekly or twice a month, depending upon the availability of funds.

The highway trust fund, which provides states about $40 billion each year for roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects administered by the states, often fluctuates and is expected to drop by the end of August. A shortfall would not shut down the Federal-Aid Highway Program, nor would it prevent states from using federal dollars for highway projects; however, it would affect how quickly FHWA reimburses states.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials continue to work closely with Congress to prevent disruptions in payments to the states. Although transportation leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives say they are ready to push through a long-term highway authorization bill, Senate leaders earlier this month moved toward passing the 18-month extension that has been proposed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee acted first to pass a “clean” extension – meaning no policy changes – of the current authorization for highway programs for 18 months beyond their Sept. 30 expiration date. Key House leaders criticized the Senate’s approach. U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, favors immediate action on a six-year authorization bill such as the one moving through his committee. That measure includes several major provisions affecting the trucking industry, including mandatory electronic onboard recorders and a clearinghouse of positive drug and alcohol test results.

Nevertheless, the House today, July 29, voted 363-68 in favor of a $7 billion infusion into the fund to keep it afloat until the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Oberstar and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Subcommittee on Highways and Transit chairman, testified the fund likely would need $3 billion to survive until the end of the fiscal year, but agreed a $7 billion bill would protect against worst-case circumstances.

The Senate also is expected to vote on a temporary fix before its August recess. Sen. David Vitter (D-La.) today, July 29, asked fellow senators for a unanimous agreement to take up his Highway Investment Protection Act of 2009, which would allocate stimulus legislation funds to fix the expected shortage.