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American Shipper

New House rule sideswipes Highway Trust Fund

New House rule sideswipes Highway Trust Fund

   The new Republican majority, motivated by the recent election to cut the budget and the size of government, officially took control of the House Wednesday and immediately pushed through a rules change that would eliminate the firewall in the Highway Trust Fund designed to ensure user fees go for their intended purpose — building and maintaining highways and transit systems.

   The procedural change is a blow to transportation infrastructure advocates, who argue that the transportation system is already brittle from years of neglect and want to find new revenue schemes to increase investment in a key pillar of the economy.

   Over the past three years, gasoline and fuel tax receipts have come in lower than expected due to the recession and the spread of more fuel-efficient vehicles. The tax is collected on a per-gallon basis and placed in the Highway Trust Fund for dispersal to states by the Department of Transportation. The reduced revenues led to a shortfall in relation to commitments made by states to obligate funds for projects and forced Congress to bail out the HTF with nearly $30 billion from the general treasury. States plan projects years into the future on the expectation of predictable levels of federal aid.

   The House rules that existed from 1998 through the last session of Congress ensured that all the taxes paid into the HTF are used for highway and transit improvements on an annual basis. Prior to that appropriators did not use all the money in the trust fund, leaving some aside to help mask spending elsewhere in the government and make the deficit appear smaller than in reality. The change in 1998 came at a time when the federal budget was in surplus.

   The logic for House Republicans, responding to the grassroots Tea Party movement's desire to slash federal spending, is that the country is in a deficit crisis and all discretionary spending needs to be on the table for potential cuts, including transportation programs.

   The vote on new House rules doesn't automatically mean that transportation funding will be reduced, but it opens the door for lawmakers to forward amendments to leave a reserve in the HTF without being blocked on a point of order.

   Transportation supporters object to removing the hard-fought protection for user fees to be used only for transportation programs.

   'We are disappointed that House Republicans voted to rescind a guarantee that Highway Trust Fund revenues would be spent to fund the critical highway and transit programs that millions of Americans rely on everyday,' said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said in a statement. 'There are two deficits facing the country today — the federal debt and the deficit in maintaining the infrastructure on which economic recovery depends. In their zeal to address the first issue, the new House leadership has taken action that deepens the second.'

   AASHTO and 20 other pro-transportation organizations wrote the House leadership in late December, saying the proposed rule 'would break faith with the American taxpayer.'

   The coalition said the new rules would make annual surface transportation investments subject to the vagaries of the appropriation process, and 'inject further uncertainty into an already destabilized U.S. transportation construction marketplace.'

   States have already scaled back transportation plans because of tight budgets associated with the recession and the fact that Congress has not passed a multiyear reauthorization of the federal highway and transit spending bill used to guide annual appropriations. Instead, transportation programs are operating under a series of short-term extensions since the SAFETEA-LU bill expired 16 months ago.

   The transportation groups said Congress should focus on passing a new transportation-spending plan that creates jobs, especially when construction industry unemployment is at 18 percent, 'not on procedural maneuvers that will make it easier to cut highway investment.'

   American Association of Port Authorities' President Kurt Nagle said in a National Journal blog response that the new House rule would repeat the problems associated with the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The HMT doesn't have a firewall and carries a $5.6 billion surplus because Congress is only appropriating about half the amount collected each year from importers and domestic shippers on waterborne cargo moves. Maritime interests complain that there is a backlog of critical harbor dredging projects that hurting business because larger ships can't maneuver in coastal waters. ' Eric Kulisch