A s the U.S. inches closer to the end of the current highway bill, debate is beginning to heat up as to whether Congress should deal with the massive spending bill now, or postpone it until 2011. The six-year bill, set to expire on Sept. 30, funds transportation and transportation infrastructure projects throughout the country, although it has never really provided enough money to maintain the roads and bridges adequately, critics have said.

A new study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation addresses just this complaint. According to the report, entitled “On a Crash Course: The Dangers and Health Costs of Deficient Roadways,” the Federal Highway Administration reports that government at all levels invests $59 billion per year in roadway capital improvement projects. That pales in comparison to the $217 billion the study said it costs the U.S. due to deficient roadways.

Of course, the highway reauthorization bill would help fund some of these deficiencies. So, too, would the Highway Trust Fund, which may be a more pressing issue for the Dept. of Transportation (DOT). The trust fund, which ran out of money last year and needed an $8 billion infusion of cash from the general fund, is in danger of running out of money by the end of August, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress recently.

“I am proposing an immediate 18-month highway reauthorization that will replenish the Highway Trust Fund,” LaHood said. “If this step is not taken, the trust fund will run out of money as soon as late August and states will be in danger of losing the vital transportation funding they need and expect.”

According to the DOT, the administration's proposal, which would require $18 billion in the highway account and $2 billion for the transit account to fund for the 18 months, “should be considered ‘Stage 1’ of the broader reauthorization process.” This plan includes a transfer from the general fund to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent, money that the DOT said would be repaid.

“We would like Congress and the administration to make sure that the flow of highway infrastructure aid to the states is not interrupted, whether the result is an 18-month bill or a five- or six-year bill,” said Clayton Boyce, vp of public affairs and press secretary for the American Trucking Assns. “But also, we are concerned that a number of policy issues might likely be delayed if an 18-month bill is opted for. For instance, the bill that is pending to create a national positive drug and alcohol test result clearinghouse for commercial drivers. This would plug a safety loophole that we have been trying to close for 10 years.”

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, led by chairman Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), is not taking the administration's lead on the subject. Oberstar has released a white paper detailing the changes he'd like to see in the next highway reauthorization bill, which could total as much as $500 billion. Postponing the bill, he said, is not an option.

“Delay is unacceptable. Delay casts uncertainty on the program. If we delay the new authorization, states will hold back on new projects and that will cost jobs,” said Oberstar. “We are not in the business of delay. It is time to move ahead.”

Several trade organizations back Obertstar's efforts, which have included sending a “markup” of the new bill to the Highway and Transit Committee for review.

“What we would hate to see is this debate be put on the backburner and just start up 18 months from now,” Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, told the Congressional newspaper The Hill. “It is a national priority that this process should move forward as quickly as possible, given the funding and the policy questions at hand.”

The next step for the authorization bill, according to Jim Berard, director of communications for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is the full committee markup, which was expected by the end of July. From there, it would go to the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

“That appears to be an elusive goal due to things out of our control, like how fast the Ways and Means Committee moves,” Berard said when asked whether the bill would be ready for President Obama's signature by the deadline.