By David Bauer, senior vice president of government relations, ARTBA

With the clock ticking on a looming shut-down of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled May 15 a two-month extension of the federal highway and public transportation programs.  Their proposal is the result of a combination of pressures: the House and Senate will be in recess from May 23 to June 1; the current short-term extension of the highway/transit programs expires May 31; and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Congress to use more budget gimmicks to bridge the HTF’s structural revenue deficit.

The Shuster-Ryan proposal would allow the HTF to continue to reimburse state departments of transportation for federal-aid surface transportation improvements from June 1 through July 31.

It is important to distinguish between the separate need for continued HTF spending authority beyond May 31 and the HTF revenue crisis that is looming later this summer—the extension requirement is largely procedural to keep federal funds flowing to the states, while the revenue crisis is a cash flow problem that emanates from existing trust fund revenues being unable to support current levels of highway/transit spending.  The fund’s sixth revenue shortfall in eight years is projected to hit in August, when the U.S. Department of Transportation will be forced to slow down state reimbursements to preserve a positive trust fund balance.

Shuster and Ryan have been clear that they prefer an extension of the programs through the end of the calendar year as they say that time is necessary to develop a plan to enable the trust fund to support a five or six-year reauthorization bill.  Due to the trust fund’s cash flow difficulties, however, such an extension would require Congress to generate roughly $11 billion in new trust fund revenue to support current spending levels.  The Shuster-Ryan two-month plan would not require any new revenues and would provide them an additional two months to secure votes for an $11 billion HTF patch through the end of the year.

With House leaders working to bring the measure to a vote next week, a number of Republican and Democratic House members are circulating a letter to the bipartisan House leadership announcing their intent to vote against any short-term extension: “Enough is enough.  America cannot afford to have Congress kick the can down the road while our roads and bridges continue to crumble and workers remain idle.” (See letter below.)

Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Ranking Democrat Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) introduced May 14 a two-month extension of the surface transportation programs.  Senate Republicans had previously embraced a longer duration extension, but the May 15 House developments may persuade the upper chamber to embrace the two-month plans.

Despite the machinations in the House and Senate on a short-term extension, ARTBA and our Transportation Construction Coalition allies are continuing to drive the message on and off Capitol Hill of the need for Congress to pass a long-term Highway Trust Fund plan.

Dear Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi,

In the very near future, the Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent and our nation will again be left without a long-term transportation plan.  Congress appears poised to enact yet another short-term patch to deal with our nation’s infrastructure needs.

Enough is enough.  America cannot afford to have Congress kick the can down the road while our roads and bridges continue to crumble and workers remain idle.

Going forward, we will only support a bill that adequately funds America’s pressing infrastructure needs for the next several years.  We will work with you to pass a long-term, sustainably funded, reauthorization bill.  We will vote against another short-term extension. 

America needs a stable Highway Trust Fund.  It is the job of Congress to provide it.