House approves $7 billion to shore up highway fund

WASHINGTON Wed Jul 29, 2009 7:04pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives approved $7 billion on Wednesday to temporarily shore up a nearly empty federal trust that pays for road, bridge and transit projects.

Supporters garnered the necessary two-thirds support to push through the stop-gap measure intended to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent through September 30, the end of the fiscal year. The vote was 363 to 68.

The government estimates the account could run dry within several weeks without an emergency infusion of cash. The fund provides states with about $40 billion per year in transportation construction funding.

Trust fund disbursements are separate from the billions in economic stimulus money dedicated to states for transportation projects.

The Senate is expected to act on the temporary trust fund measure before the end of next week, and lawmakers plan to address a longer-term remedy after their August recess.

The trust account, which is replenished by gasoline tax receipts, is severely depleted due to declining fuel demand as motorists opt for more fuel-efficient cars and drive less due to the recession, government officials say.

"Enactment of this legislation will ensure full funding of the highway investment levels authorized by current law, and prevent devastating slowdowns or cuts in each state's federal highway funds," Representative James Oberstar, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in remarks before the House vote.

State construction spending is at its peak with summer in full swing, and continued federal funding is crucial amid recession, officials said.

"Not only are jobs at stake, but the economic boost of the (stimulus) recovery program would be jeopardized unless final action is taken," said John Horsley, executive director of the trade group representing state transportation authorities.

The Obama administration estimated that at least $5 billion would be needed through the end of September to maintain federal payments to states.

The Transportation Department had sought $20 billion to keep the fund solvent through early 2011 while lawmakers considered a longer-term blueprint for setting construction priorities and financing projects.

Congress approved $8 billion in emergency funds to keep the trust fund from running out of money before the end of the fiscal year in 2008.

(Reporting by John Crawley and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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