The Congressional Budget Office is drawing the attention of transportation policy experts with an upbeat estimate that the nation’s Highway Trust Fund should be able to cover its projected spending needs into fiscal 2013.
By that time the fund would be running nearly out of money. If the CBO scenario holds, the fund would end the 2013 budget year with just $900 million left for highway spending and $600 million for transit. The Department of Transportation has said it needs at least a $4 billion cushion to maintain funding of state highway programs without cash flow problems.
But that also means the Obama administration and lawmakers in Congress could have at least two years, at current revenue and spending trends, before they would need to replenish the HTF either by increasing fees that go into it or with a boost from the general fund.
Highway Trust Fund news from JOC:
LaHood Says No Fuel Tax Increase Needed for Transport .
The CBO in its latest estimate projects that likely revenue collections for the nation’s main transportation accounts will be enough to meet its current obligation levels comfortably for the 2011 budget year that begins in October, ending that cycle with $18.8 billion left over in highway funds and $5.8 billion for transit programs.
The agency also said the trust fund’s highway account should end fiscal 2012 (on Sept. 30 of that year) with $9.7 billion on hand, which was more than it had three years earlier, plus $3.6 billion in the transit account. The CBO calculations assume spending continues at 2010 levels, adjusted for inflation.
Some industry officials say the CBO numbers could give Congress and the Obama team more breathing room to avoid or delay crafting a new long-term transportation spending program, which might boost infrastructure spending to cover some long-neglected needs but would require new taxes to pay for it.
So far, the administration has stood flatly opposed to hiking federal fuel taxes in a weak economy, and those make up the main funding source for the trust fund. And it has yet to offer a proposal to renew multi-year surface transportation programs that expire this year, or even produce the Department of Transportation’s promised “principals” to guide Congress in drafting a new transportation program.
The CBO cautions that “actual balances could be higher or lower, depending on the accuracy of revenue and spending estimates.” Federal planners have also overshot before, such as when the combination of spending obligations and the economic downturn cut trust fund balances so much that it needed a $7 billion general fund transfer in fiscal 2009, and $14.7 billion more the next year.
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