Feds ‘may have difficulty’ meeting summer highway demands

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The Congressional Budget Office said Friday that the federal government “may have difficulty” meeting its transportation funding obligations this summer unless Congress approves new of infrastructure funding. 

The warning is confirmation of an earlier projection from the agency that the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund would run out of money as early as August. 

The CBO said in its new analysis that the transportation department would have more trouble meeting demands for money from the trust fund’s highway account than it would from its transit account. 

“[The] Highway Account may have difficulty meeting all obligations during the summer of fiscal year 2014. [The] Transit Account will likely be able to meet all obligations through fiscal year 2014,” the budget agency said. 

“CBO estimates that revenues will total about $33 billion and outlays will total about $45 billion in FY 2014,” the CBO said of its forecast for the DOT’s highway funding account. 

“CBO estimates that revenues will total about $5 billion and outlays will total about $8 billion in FY 2014,” the agency added of the trust fund’s transit portion.   

Lawmakers are racing to find a resolution to the transportation funding standoff before the Highway Trust Fund’s tank reaches empty. The traditional source for transportation projects has been the federal gas tax, which is currently priced at 18.4 cents per gallon. 

The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and it currently brings in about $16 billion less than the current level of transportation spending approved by lawmakers in 2012. 

The 2012 transportation bill, which is scheduled to expire in September, includes approximately $50 billion per year in spending for road and transit projects. The gas tax is expected to bring only $34 billion per year over the next few years, leaving a large shortfall that has to be plugged.

Transportation supporters have pushed Congress to nearly double the gas tax to approximately 33 cents per gallon, which they say is about the level it would be now if it was indexed to inflation 20 years ago. Lawmakers have been loath to increase the tax on drivers in the middle of an election year, however. 

The House has proposed a plan to use savings from cut backs at the U.S. Postal Service to pay for at least a one-year extension of the current transportation funding level. Democratic leaders in the Senate have balked at the proposal however, calling it “unworkable” and arguing that the Post Office and transportation funding issues should be dealt with separately.

The CBO said in its analysis on Friday that the picture in the Highway Trust Fund would be even worse in 2015 if lawmakers do not come to resolution soon. 

“With no increase in receipts, in 2015, all of the receipts credited to the fund would be needed to meet obligations made before that year,” the agency said. 

The full CBO analysis of the Highway Trust Fund can be read here.