Funding for highway projects could be in jeopardy if rules governing procedures for the 112th Congress are adopted as proposed.

The rules, proposed by the Republican leadership, include a provision that would subject highway investment to the appropriations process, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

“The provision, which is on pages 10 and 11 of the draft, would hurt investment in transportation infrastructure, reduce jobs, and break faith with the American taxpayer,” AASHTO wrote in a letter to the House leadership.

(Download the entire letter here)

The letter was signed by 21 organizations or unions, including the American Trucking Assns., the Associated General Contractors of America, the Laborer-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, Laborers International Union of North America, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The specific provision reads:

(4) HIGHWAY FUNDING.—In rule XXI, amend clause 3 to read as follows:
‘‘3. It shall not be in order to consider a bill, joint resolution, or conference report that—‘‘(a) provides spending authority derived from receipts deposited in the Highway Trust Fund (excluding any transfers from the General Fund of the Treasury); or (b) reduces or otherwise limits the accruing balances of the Highway Trust Fund, for any purpose other than for those activities authorized for the highway or mass transit categories.’’

“The current House rule (Rule XXI, clause 3) ensures that all of the revenues that taxpayers pay into the Highway Trust Fund are used for highway and transit improvements on an annual basis,” AASHTO’s letter states.

According to a press release from the House Republican Conference, “highway funding, with some exceptions, will now be treated as other general spending and therefore be subject to any member’s attempt to reduce the spending.”

“Creating jobs and bringing down our massive federal deficit will require us to set priorities and start living within our means. This proposal simply ensures we won’t be required to spend more on transportation projects than we take in. At the same time, it protects the Highway Trust Fund by ensuring every penny of the gas tax is spent on highway and transit projects, rather than diverted to pay for other items that we simply cannot afford,” Brendan Buck, spokesman for the Republican transition team, said in an email to The Hill.

The organizations who have signed their names to the AASHTO letter, though, disagree. Highway and transit spending levels were set in the SAFETEA-LU bill passed in 2005 (more commonly known as the highway authorization bill, and since extended multiple times in lieu of a replacement bill). Those levels assumed a fixed amount of funds being paid into the Highway Trust Fund based on federal fuel taxes.

As miles driven dropped and more fuel efficient vehicles came along resulting in a corresponding drop in tax revenue, the flow of cash into the Highway Trust Fund fell below minimum levels set by Rule XXI, clause 3, in 1998, which guarantees funding levels for transit projects as set forth in authorizing law, in this case, SAFETEA-LU.

AASHTO believes that this rule change if adopted would allow the government, which has been pumping money into the Highway Trust Fund in recent years to meet funding needs, to stop that flow of money and open up highway projects to appropriations.

“The House Republican-proposed rules package for the 112th Congress, unfortunately, would sever the user-financed basis of the Highway Trust Fund, and make annual federal highway and transit investments subject to the whims of the appropriations process,” the letter said. “In so doing, this proposal would inject further uncertainty into an already destabilized U.S. transportation construction marketplace.”

AASHTO goes on to urge Congress to focus on the rebuilding and recovery of the economy to help cut the 18% unemployment level in the construction sector.

“The combination of not having a multi-year reauthorization of the federal highway and public transportation programs – 15 months after the expiration of SAFETEA-LU – and recession-driven state budget challenges has led many states to begin scaling back their transportation programs. The U.S. construction industry is suffering unemployment levels in excess of 18% – more than twice the national average. Given these realities, the focus of the 112th Congress should be on enactment of a robust, multi-year reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program that creates jobs and boosts the economy, not on procedural maneuvers that will make it easier to cut highway investment.”