Stopgap money for highways approved

Local transportation officials and road builders are feeling a little less anxious now that the U.S. House of Representatives has approved a stopgap $7 billion infusion into the federal Highway Trust Fund.

By government estimates, the trust fund, which sends more than $40 billion annually to the states for construction, could have bottomed out in a few weeks.

"Those funds are important, not just from a development perspective, but frankly from an urban-sustainability perspective," said Mike Montero, chairman of the Rogue Valley Area Commission on Transportation. "It has potential consequences for the region's livability if funds weren't available for the interstate system as well as state and local projects."

The Senate is expected to act on the temporary trust fund measure within a few days, but what happens when the current authorization ends on Sept. 30 may dictate whether some projects already in the works are completed.

The trust fund has shrunk because gasoline tax receipts have fallen as drivers log fewer miles. Transportation officials and road builders are concerned about what will happen if the next highway funding bill fails to at least match present levels.

There are two competing measures. One would extend highway funding for six years, and double current spending. The other is an 18-month extension.

Mike Crennen, local president for Knife River Corp., a regional paving and aggregate company, said President Obama wants to delay discussion of highway funding until after the 2010 election.

"The consequences (of delay) would be devastating to highway construction and to our business," Crennen said. "It would completely undermine any positive impact from the economic stimulus dollars spent this year."

Crennen said Knife River is working on a half-dozen projects in the region, including improvements on Highway 140 and Highway 62. He said the federal stimulus package has definitely had a positive impact, but "not enough to replace the lost work from the private and commercial sectors. It's cushioned the downfall. We have about 40 percent fewer employees than three years ago. There is just no work outside the public works projects."

He said workers just recently started on projects funded by the February stimulus package. Those projects will be completed this fall.

"After that, there is nothing on the horizon," he said. "I really don't know where the work will come from for next year."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

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