Congress acts to buoy highway fund
WASHINGTON » Congress sent President Bush yesterday an $8 billion rescue package for the federal highway trust fund. The infusion comes as the trust fund, which relies on declining revenues from the federal gas tax, verges on going broke, threatening road and bridge projects in every state.
The House passed the measure yesterday on a 376-29 vote, a day after the Senate overcame objections from conservative senators and passed it on a voice vote. Democratic Reps. Neil Abercrombie and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii both voted in favor of the measure.
The legislation transfers $8 billion from the Treasury's general fund to the highway fund, ensuring that ongoing construction projects will not be interrupted.
The White House had previously threatened to veto the measure, calling it "both a gimmick and a dangerous precedent that shifts costs from users to taxpayers at large."
But the administration shifted positions after Transportation Secretary Mary Peters revealed last week that the trust fund would run out of money this month, which would delay payments to states for infrastructure projects and threaten the jobs of hundreds of thousands of construction workers.
It has long been anticipated that the 52-year-old trust fund would move into the red next year, a result of the reluctance of Congress to raise the gas tax, unchanged since 1993 despite inflation and soaring construction costs. The federal fuel tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, or 24.3 cents for diesel.
But the fund, which had a $10 billion surplus just three years ago, has had a rapid change in fiscal fortune as drivers, responding to higher gas prices, have curtailed their driving and switched to more fuel-efficient vehicles.