House Approves $11 Billion To Keep Highway Fund Solvent

The House has passed a bill that adds 10 months worth of money into the Highway Trust Fund. The account runs dry next month unless Congress acts. Hundreds of projects could be jeopardized.

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We have another update now on a basic piece of federal business that's not getting done. Congress has been fighting over the Highway Trust Fund. It pays the federal share of road and bridge construction projects. That trust fund is running on fumes. In the absence of a long-term agreement, the House has passed a temporary extension. It would provide $11 billion to keep the fund paying out until spring. President Obama had been pressing for a long-term fix but says he will settle for this. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's rare for President Obama and the Republican-led House to find common ground these days in Washington. But they can apparently agree on this much - that it makes no sense to risk putting construction workers out of a job and halt highway projects in the middle of the summer road-building season. The president formally endorsed the temporary measure during a speech at a federal highway research lab outside Washington while making clear he doesn't think much of the stopgap solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At the very least, Congress should be keeping people on the job who are already there right now. But all this does is set us up for the same crisis a few months from now. So Congress shouldn't pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road for a few months, careening from crisis to crisis when it comes to something as basic as our infrastructure.

NAYLOR: The House-passed bill extends the life of the Highway Trust Fund by finding money in some unlikely, and critics say unwise, revenue sources. It will allow companies to continue to provide less funding for their pension plans. Since the companies then report higher profits, they'll pay more in taxes and that money will be earmarked for roads and bridges. Democrats, like Peter Welch of Vermont, argued that's not such a great idea.

CONGRESSMAN PETER WELCH: Instead of basing it on user fees, which have always been the way we funded infrastructure projects that we all benefit by, it raids pension funds. It essentially creates a pothole in future pensions to fill potholes in our highways.

NAYLOR: The House measure will also take money from a fund to fix leaky, underground storage tanks and use it to fix roads instead. Conservative groups, like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, urged Republicans to vote no on the fix, calling it a bailout. They, like Republican Scott Garrett of New Jersey, say the federal government should get out of the business of paying for highways.

CONGRESSMAN SCOTT GARRETT: It's about time, after all of these years, that we re-empower the states, re-empower the counties, re-empower the local officials - the people who live and use these roads - to make the transportation decisions instead of people here in Washington who have no clue what the needs are, who have no idea what the problems are.

NAYLOR: But most in Congress weren't ready to go that far. Only 45 Republicans voted against the bill. Another solution for paying for roads would be to raise the federal gasoline tax. It hasn't gone up since 1993. And since it's not indexed to inflation, it hasn't kept up with the cost of construction. But that's a nonstarter, too. At any rate, Michigan Republican Dave Camp who authored the so-called pension smoothing plan, says there's no time to debate a long-term solution.

CONGRESSMAN DAVE CAMP: State transportation departments have already started delaying or stopping certain highway projects to prepare for the fact that funding may fall short. Americans across the country deserve to see less gridlock on the roads and from their elected representatives. These policies are straightforward and have a history of bipartisan, bicameral support.

NAYLOR: In fact, a similar bill is moving through the Senate. And while no one seems overly fond of the temporary fix for the trust fund, it's something both sides feel they can live with - a rare occurrence these days. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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