Congress Votes to Extend Federal Funds for Highways Through July

A worker operates a Caterpillar Inc. 336D hydraulic excavator during construction on Route 7 near Falls Church, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. The U.S. Highway Trust Fund is running out of money amid congressional opposition to raising the 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline, a levy last increased in 1993, forcing the government to keep money flowing with short-term steps.

Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. Congress voted to extend federal funds for highways and mass-transit programs through July while lawmakers work on a longer-term financing plan.

The Senate’s voice vote early Saturday followed House passage Tuesday of the measure, which will go to President Barack Obama for his signature. The Highway Trust Fund’s current authority to reimburse states for transportation spending is set to expire May 31, at the start of the summer construction season.

Before the vote, second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois called on lawmakers to come up with a longer-term plan to finance the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

“In this 60 days, it is time for this Congress to act,” Durbin said.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said earlier this week he would rather extend the program through at least the end of the year.

Still, he said that if Congress didn’t pass the two-month extension, more than 4,000 U.S. Department of Transportation personnel would be put on furlough and transportation projects across the U.S. would be at risk.

Congress plans to leave Washington at the end of this week for a week-long Memorial Day recess.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated on May 18 that the Highway Trust Fund would spend about $10 billion during the two-month period.

Lawmakers disagree on how to pay for a longer extension, and many oppose raising the federal gasoline tax that provides most of the money for the trust fund.

The gasoline tax has been 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, a funding source weakened by greater auto fuel efficiency. The tax on diesel fuel is 24.4 cents per gallon.

Long-Term Projects

The most recent extension of the highway fund was enacted in August 2014. States and advocates for roads and transportation have complained that Congress, by repeatedly relying on short funding extensions, has made it difficult to plan long-term construction projects.

“We will more than likely have to pass another short-term patch” before August, Shuster said.

President Barack Obama’s administration said Tuesday that Congress needs to “end the era of short-term patches and chronic underinvestment” in highways and mass transit.

“This continuing pattern of uncertainty has already caused several states to cancel or defer projects during the height of summer construction season,” the administration’s budget office said in a statement.

While the extension would allow the Highway Trust Fund to keep spending money, it wouldn’t provide additional money because the fund is expected to remain solvent with existing resources during the two-month period.

Spending from the Highway Trust Fund has outpaced its tax revenue since 2001. Shortfalls have been made up by periodic transfers from the Treasury’s general fund. Those transfers totaled $54 billion from 2008 through 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The bill is H.R. 2353.