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Funding shortfall threatens Oklahoma highway projects

Funding shortfall threatens Oklahoma highway projects

BY CHRIS CASTEEL - Washington Bureau
Published: June 2, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Oklahoma could lose up to $80 million in highway money in the next few months because of an anticipated shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund, Sen. Jim Inhofe said today.

The loss to Oklahoma -- which could range from $50 million to $80 million -- would mean the state Department of Transportation would have to cancel or delay projects that have been in the pipeline for years.

The Highway Trust Fund, which gets money from the federal gas tax, has been hit hard by a reduction in the amount of gas purchased by American motorists. Congress had to pump $8 billion into the fund last fall to keep it solvent.

At a hearing today of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the committee, said the fund may need $5 billion to $7 billion in August to keep commitments made by the 2005 highway bill.

Oklahoma is expected to get about $465 million in the next two years for road and bridge projects from the stimulus bill passed earlier this year -- an amount far exceeding what it could lose because of the trust fund shortfall.

But Inhofe said Gary Ridley, director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, told him that the state would be forced to "deprogram" up to $80 million in projects if the shortfall isn't fixed.

Senators on the committee said the trust fund posed a long-term problem for the nation's road and bridges that needs to be addressed this year when a new highway bill is written.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the federal gas tax would have to be increased so funding could keep pace with the nation's need for road improvements.

But Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the top Republican on the committee, told reporters today that he wouldn't agree to a tax increase. He acknowledged that the gas tax, at its current level, won't generate enough money to pay for the next highway bill. But he said the administration should shift some of the new money it is planning to spend on social programs to transportation.

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