President Bush has signed legislation approved by Congress in September to transfer $8.017 billion to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The move allows state departments of transportation to pay their bills and to continue the millions of dollars of construction projects that had been put on hold after U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters announced that federal-aid payments to the states would be withheld because of a shortage of funds. In early-September, Secretary Peters announced that federal-aid payments would be rationed weekly, rather than twice daily, because of a shortage of federal funds.
This $8 billion is not new money. The high price of gasoline has finally caused consumers to cut back on their driving. And because less gasoline taxes are coming into the federal system, the HTF has begun to experience shortfalls in its expected revenue. Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN and chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, said approval of the bill restores to the Highway Trust Fund $8.017 billion that was siphoned off in a budget deal 10 years ago. "None of that money went for highway projects, bridge projects, highway safety, or the transit needs of this country," Oberstar said. "These were taxes paid at the pump by drivers all across the United States but they have not been getting the benefit of it."
"The money approved by the Congress is only a temporary patch to keep the HTF (Highway Trust Fund) above water for a few months," according to Chris Lippincott, spokesman for TxDOT. That should give the Congress enough time to start working on the next transportation authorization bill.
"TxDOT is one of many groups who have been calling for a total re-evaluation of our priorities and how we pay for transportation in our country," said Lippincott. "The $8-billion shortfall was the clearest example yet that the old ways are crumbling beneath our feet. It was a quick and sobering reminder of the lingering problems that exist in our federal program."
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) President Pete K. Rahn said, "Restoring the Highway Trust Fund is a short-term solution. It is time to face up to the reality that America must rebuild and renew our aging system if we hope to give our children the same chance at prosperity that we inherited. We should use this breathing room to focus on how we will meet our future transportation needs. We hope the bipartisan cooperation that brought all parties together in this crisis will prevail as we address the challenge just around the corner."
In addition to the news about the Highway Trust Fund, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters announced that the federal government will make $5 million available immediately to begin funding work to repair roads, bridges and airports damaged by Hurricane Ike. She added that more funds will be made available for repair and reconstruction work once damages assessed for the region's transportation network have been completed. Secretary Peters said that the Federal Highway Administration was providing $2 million in quick-release emergency highway funding for road and bridge work in Texas, and another $2 million in emergency highway funding for Louisiana. Secretary Peters also announced that the Department's Federal Aviation Administration was making $1 million in Airport Improvement Program funds immediately available for repair work at the Galveston Scholes Airport. The money will help pay for structural and engineering assessments needed to catalogue the widespread damages to the airport. Additional funding is being sought to repair damages to structures and the air traffic control tower at Ellington Field.
According to the Galveston city administration, the water and sewer systems were compromised due to damage from Hurricane Ike. The water system has been operating off generators until power is restored and/or replacement motors can be installed in pump stations. "Many leaks are being discovered daily." The sewer lines and treatment plants are also under repair. Crews continue to work on pressurizing lines; restoring natural gas service will take longer. Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas of Galveston has requested more than $2 billion in aid from Washington, DC, to help rebuild the city.
Good luck to her and to the rest of us. Federal funding for infrastructure will become a lot tighter as the economy melts down even as I write.