Highway Fund Gets $4.5 Billion Infusion as Program Lapse Looms

The Highway Trust Fund’s balance increased by $4.5 billion last month, giving lawmakers potential space to temporarily extend the authorization for surface transportation programs again as the infrastructure bill hangs in the balance.

The highway account had about $14.2 billion at the end of September, up from $10 billion the month before and reversing consecutive monthly declines since January, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s trust fund tracker updated Monday. The fund is the main source of federal financing for surface transportation programs. Its transit account had a $6.9 billion balance at the end of the month.

Lawmakers face an Oct. 31 deadline for either the House to clear an infrastructure bill (H.R. 3684) or for both chambers to act on a second extension of highway and transit programs to avoid another lapse in authorization. The increased balance could make a second temporary extension easier by potentially avoiding the need to transfer money from the Treasury general fund.

The infrastructure bill passed by the Senate in August would reauthorize surface transportation programs for five years and transfer $118 billion to the Highway Trust Fund to keep it solvent. House leaders delayed a vote on it after pushback from progressives seeking to also pass a larger social spending package (H.R. 5376). The programs lapsed starting Oct. 1, until President Joe Biden signed a 30-day extension (Public Law 117-44) on Oct. 2 that lawmakers passed to give themselves more time.

Transportation stakeholders have cautioned against short-term extensions as the Federal Highway Administration has forecasted potential shortfalls in recent months. After previously warning that it would have to ration payments to states because of an anticipated shortfall, FHWA said last month that the IRS’s Highway Trust Fund certification boosted the highway account balance by $2.1 billion, alleviating the need for cash management procedures “in the short term.”

The current extension didn’t include a transfer of money to the Highway Trust Fund. The Bipartisan Policy Center warned last week that a major transfer from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund could cause the U.S. to hit the debt ceiling sooner.

Many lawmakers are pressing for a vote this month on the infrastructure bill, especially given the potential lapse in programs, though others want to see more progress on the broader package being considered through the budget reconciliation process.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a “dear colleague” letter on Saturday that the House “will aim to consider” the infrastructure and reconciliation bills during “this work period” because the extension of surface transportation programs only runs through Oct. 31.

“Discussions continue to move forward,” he wrote, but didn’t set a date for a vote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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