The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a $10.9 billion extension of U.S. transportation funding through May 2015 with a 367-to-55 vote. The measure is aimed at averting cuts of federal payments to states for transportation-construction projects that will likely take place within the month if Congress does not find funding solutions for the nearly depleted Highway Trust Fund (HTF).
The U.S. Department of Transportation forecasts that in the first week of August, the balance in the highway account of the HTF will fall below the $4 billion level that will trigger cash-management policies. Immediate reimbursements of state construction costs will stop, being replaced by semi-weekly payments to each state determined by the proportion of fuel-tax revenues each state contributes to the fund for the two weeks. Highway-Trust-Fund cash-management policies would likely result in states ceasing new construction activity, and could curtail existing construction activity.
The House’s $10.9 billion stop-gap measure is paid for largely through revenue generated by pension accounting changes, higher customs user fees and money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks.
Reuters quotes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying that "as soon as I can get to it," the Senate would begin considering a similar, $10.8 billion measure. The $10.8 billion companion bill passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate Finance Committee would also fully fund transportation projects through May, but it leans less heavily on pension changes and more on revenues from measures to boost tax compliance.
The Obama administration supports the ten-month extension of HTF funding, even though prominent democrats such as California Senator Barbara Boxer insist that there’s a much better opportunity to pass long-term funding for transportation construction in the "lame duck" legislative session after November elections.
An extension timeline that ends in May essentially punts the transportation funding decision to the next Congress.
"All this does is set us up for the same crisis a few months from now. So Congress shouldn't pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months," said President Barack Obama, the Associated Press reported.
Federal transportation investments have operated without a clear, long-term plan since 2008 thanks to a series of stopgap measures slapped on the expired highway bill under crisis conditions much like the patch Congress is considering today.
The House Rules Committee was the setting Monday evening for a momentary bipartisan call to bring back earmarks as a way to lubricate passage of transportation bills.