WASHINGTON - House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., yesterday introduced a bill that would provide $5 billion to the highway trust fund so that it stays solvent through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The bill, which would prevent the trust fund from running out of money in August, has the support of House Transportation Committee chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., and is expected to be voted on by the full House today, according to a congressional aide.
The bill comes as lawmakers are expected to defer until September any legislation to extend the current highway law or to create a new one, according to sources.
Congress is scheduled to adjourn at the end of this week for a month-long recess.
The Rangel bill is designed to prevent the funding crisis that hit state transportation departments last fall when the fund was running out of money and the U.S. Department of Transportation warned it would have to ration funds to the states. Congress quickly replenished the trust fund it with a transfer of $8 billion of general funds.
The trust fund had a balance of about $4 billion as of this week, sources said. Funding is provided to states for reimbursement of their transportation project costs only as cash becomes available.
The fund relies mostly on fuel tax revenues collected by the federal government and is considered critically low when it dips below $1 billion.
The White House and Congressional Budget Office project there will be a shortfall of $3.9 billion to $8.6 billion in the highway trust fund in fiscal 2010, which begins Oct. 1.
Replenishing the fund with a one-time transfer that would keep it solvent through September and would give Congress time to decide whether to extend the current law by 18 months or approve a multi-year reauthorization bill.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee earlier this month approved legislation to extend the current law by 18 months after Obama administration officials suggested an extension.
But their action came after the House Transportation Committee's highways and transit subcommittee approved a multi-year reauthorization bill. Oberstar and Rep. John L. Mica from Florida, the committee's top Republican, have opposed such an extension and have urged that Congress instead consider a multi-year reauthorization bill.
Oberstar had threatened to allow the highway trust fund to run dry to force congressional action on a multi-year bill.
The current law - the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users - expires Sept. 30. That leaves Congress less than one month after they return from their August recess to pass legislation that would extend or replace the current law so that transportation spending can continue.
"It's a matter of the Senate actually prioritizing this as a policy issue and recognizing that there's never going to be a convenient time to discuss revenues," said Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Kavinoky warned that if the federal government does not address trust fund problems now, it will be forced to pay for them later through unemployment benefits for laid-off workers and economic losses due to transportation spending cuts.
Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has proposed legislation that would restore the highway trust fund's ability to accrue interest on its revenue. That ability was taken away by Congress in 1998.
Baucus' bill would also replenish the trust fund with about $7.3 billion of general funds and about $19.5 billion of back interest that would have accrued since 1998.
Oberstar has mentioned the possibility of allowing the trust fund to accrue interest as an option to help repair the fund, which annually runs close to red because it cannot be sustained with gas tax revenue alone.
Revenue from the gas tax, which has not been increased in more than a decade, has not kept pace with requests for transportation funding from the states. In addition, Congress has transferred money out of the fund for other uses.