Posted by Matt Dempsey

Tulsa World 

Official: Congress must fix road fund

by: JIM MYERS World Washington Bureau
Saturday, June 20, 2009

Link to Article 

WASHINGTON With a federal highway fund facing bankruptcy yet again, Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley urged Congress on Friday to come up with a fix that would avoid project delays.

On another mode of transportation, Ridley said Oklahoma isn't ready to say whether it will apply for any of the new high-speed rail money.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood several days ago proposed an immediate 18-month extension of current transportation legislation, which expires this fall. He proposed using that extension to shore up the Highway Trust Fund.

"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," LaHood said.

His announcement, however, did not spell out exactly how the trust fund should be fixed.

Instead, LaHood called for reforms, including one that would focus more investments on metropolitan areas, and again expressed opposition to a gas-tax increase during the current economic downturn.

His announcement also all but ruled out any serious effort to pass a six-year, $450-billion bill outlined by key House members.

Ridley conceded that a full authorization is no longer likely.

"Certainly it causes us a little distress when we don't have the certainty moving forward," he said, citing his own agency's eight-year approach.

Asked about LaHood's proposal for an 18-month extension of the current law, Ridley said states would prefer that approach to those that would offer extensions lasting only a few months at a time.

Oklahoma's U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, met with LaHood this week to discuss the administration's approach to fixing the trust fund.

Inhofe said he will raise the option of using interest on funds transferred from the trust fund in the 1990s to shore up the fund now.

"Last year, we were able to return the $8 billion to their rightful place, but we are still missing 10 years' worth of interest," he said.

"Repaying the interest would give the trust (fund) between $13 (billion) and $17 billion."

Inhofe said he remained confident that a fix would be found soon.

LaHood this week also announced guidance for states to apply for stimulus dollars for high-speed rail projects.

One of the corridors identified for the $13 billion program includes Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Little Rock.

"We are still in the process of reviewing it," Ridley said of the guidance released by LaHood.

He said factors under study include the amount of matching funds the state would have to put up to qualify for the competitive grants and any future financial obligation it would have for the service.

"I did not see anything that would stop us from putting something together," Ridley said.