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(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) joined her Senate colleagues to pass a bill that will help keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent and prevent tens of thousands of construction layoffs across the country.  The bill passed by a voice vote.  It is now headed to the House for a final vote before going to the President’s desk.

The legislation replaces $8 billion that was taken out of the Highway Trust Fund at the end of 1998, and it will enable the federal government to continue to reimburse states for construction work. 

Murray, who chairs the Senate’s Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, has been sounding the alarm for two years about the financial crisis facing the Highway Trust Fund.  Earlier this year, she helped author the legislative solution, but it was blocked repeatedly by Republicans and the Administration.  Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation abruptly acknowledged that the Trust Fund had gone broke, reversed its opposition to the legislative fix, and asked Congress to get the bill to the President’s desk.

“This bill keeps our highway projects going, it ensures that tens of thousands of workers will still have jobs tomorrow – and it couldn’t come a minute too soon,” Senator Murray said.  “I’m frustrated that it took two years for President Bush and his Republican allies to wake up realize how serious this situation really is.  But I’m very glad that today we were able to reach an agreement and get this bill passed.”

Senator Murray spoke on the Senate floor earlier in the day to urge her colleagues to support the bill.  She explained that the crisis would have a devastating effect on Washington and states across the country because it would force them to cancel construction projects and lay off workers. 

The following is the full text of Senator Murray’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Mr. President, I rise today because we face an emergency in the Highway Trust Fund – the primary means of funding highway construction and repair projects for every state in this nation. 

On Friday, President Bush’s Transportation Secretary – Mary Peters – finally acknowledged what we have been warning for months.  The highway account of our Highway Trust Fund is broke.  After denying for months that a crisis is imminent, the Bush Administration has now taken a closer look at real receipts from the federal gas tax and discovered that their estimates have been off by some $3 billion – just since May.  

And they are now preparing to default on their bills to the states.  Mr. President, let me make it very clear to everyone how serious the impact of this could be.  If we don’t pass the bill before us now, my Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee will be forced to slash money for Federal highway investments across this country.  And it will cost each of our states tens of millions of dollars in the next month alone. 

Not only does this threaten the safety of our nation’s roads and bridges, it also could mean tens of thousands of job losses, as the federal government defaults on contracts in every state in the union.  This nightmare will become a reality just as the unemployment rate has reached the highest it has been in nearly five years.  Our country lost 84,000 jobs in August alone, which came on top of job losses in July, and June, and every month this year.  People across this country are hurting.  Many are wondering how they will be able to pay the bills as the weather gets colder and they have to begin turning on the heat. 

If we don’t shore up the Trust Fund, we will be forced to halt ongoing highway projects dead in their tracks.  And thousands upon thousands of workers will be told to go home and not come to work the next morning.  And so I urge my colleagues not to delay this bill.  I hope they will put aside their partisan ideology and work with us for the good of the nation.  We literally cannot afford to wait a minute longer.

This is an Urgent Problem

Mr. President, I want to explain the situation so that my colleagues understand where we stand.  This coming Thursday – that’s tomorrow – may be the last time the federal government will be able to reimburse 100 percent of their expenses. 

The DOT has told my Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee that on Thursday, September 18th, reimbursements could drop to as little as 64 percent of the funds that states are due. They will have to offer states an IOU for the rest.

In my home state of Washington, 21 percent of the transportation budget is supported by the federal gas tax, with local agencies spending between $15- and $30 million per month in federal dollars.  If the federal government has to cut off funds, Washington state would lose between $33 million and $54 million per month over the next five months. 

And that’s just one example.

In other states the federal government’s share is much, much higher.  This morning, the Oklahoma Transportation Director, Gary Ridley, testified in the Senate about the impact it will have in his state.  In Oklahoma, 85 percent of the state’s construction program is paid for with Federal funds.  And he said the kind of crisis we’re talking about will have a “dramatic effect” on his state’s ability to move forward on any road construction.

Oklahoma just opened bids on $80 million in highway work – including a $40 million project to replace a bridge in Oklahoma City that has been identified as having numerous safety vulnerabilities.   But Mr. Ridley said he has had to ask his state highway commission to hold off on those contracts. 

In fact, he might even have to stop all right-of-way acquisition and construction projects until we find a solution to this Highway Trust Fund crisis.

Mr. President – that is the desperate situation in states across this country.

I Have Been Sounding the Alarm for 2 Years

Now, what’s most disturbing to me is that it’s not like we didn’t know this crisis was coming.  I have been sounding the alarm about the state of the Highway Trust Fund for two years.  I and my Democratic colleagues have warned repeatedly that we face a looming disaster.  We have proposed a solution that would enable the fund to stay solvent.  We have made it clear that without action this year, we would face a financial disaster – and that it was coming fast.

Mr. President, the situation is so serious, that after months of blocking our legislative solution, the Bush Administration did a 180 and is now asking us to get this bill on the President’s desk by the end of this week.  And I am hopeful that today, we will do that.

Explanation of the Bill

Mr. President, our bill replaces $8 billion that was taken out of the Highway Trust Fund back in the end of 1998.  This is not a bail out from the general fund of the Treasury.  Mr. President, that $8 billion was collected from gas taxes for the purpose of being deposited in the Highway Trust Fund. 

At the time, the Trust Fund was flush with money, and we didn’t think we needed it.  But we definitely need it now.  And we are proposing to restore that $8 billion – and not one penny more. 

This isn’t new to anyone in this body.  We have debated this proposal before.  I and my Ranking Member on my Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Senator Bond, included this proposed transfer in our Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill.  Democrats tried to pass this proposal in June as part of the FAA bill.  Democrats included it in a tax extender package.  And we tried to pass it as part of an economic stimulus bill. 

Now, we have another chance. 

I came to the floor yesterday – and the day before – to urge my Republican colleagues to see how important this legislation is.  And I’m here making the case again today.  I hope my colleagues will finally listen and work with us. 

Within a few days, we could start seeing the consequences of this crisis.  This Thursday could be the last day that states will be fully reimbursed for construction work.  By this time next week, states will have to start doing without. 

The stakes could not be higher.  Mr. President – 84,000 jobs were lost last month alone.  We can’t put one more American job at risk.  We must act – and we must act now.