FHWA’s Emergency Relief Program Financially Strained, CRS Report States

AASHTO Journal, 14 October 2011

The Congressional Research Service has issued a report highlighting the financial vulnerability of the Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief Program and what it will mean for states requesting future aid money to fix damaged or destroyed transportation infrastructure.CRS explains the history of the Emergency Relief Program and also highlights some of the problems the program faces on a regular basis.

The ER program is run by FHWA but administered through state transportation departments. Funds are available for emergency repairs and to restore federal-aid highways after a natural disaster strikes or a massive failure occurs (such as a bridge collapse). While ER is a federal program, states decide whether to seek funding.

Each year, $100 million is authorized for the program from the Highway Trust Fund. General Fund appropriations are also made by Congress as needed.

Three concerns are identified by CRS that might spell trouble for the program in the future:

  1. The $100 million annual authorization from the HTF has been surpassed nearly every year, requiring Congress to supplement funding through the appropriations process, which can delay funding for permanent repairs.
  2. Congress and FHWA have overly broadened the scope of projects that qualify for ER funding by issuing numerous waivers.
  3. Congress has directed in some cases that ER fully fund projects without making states match the grant with the usual 10% to 20% share, which adds to federal costs.

CRS’s report also focused on ways to more rapidly move ER money to the states for repairs or reconstruction.

“State requests for ER funding are at times backlogged,” the report states. “In a deficit-reduction environment, it is questionable whether the ER program can continue to loosen eligibility restrictions and forgo the state match without increasing the backlog.”

The 11-page report is available at bit.ly/CRS-Disaster.

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