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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Emergency Relief Program: Federal-Aid Highway Assistance for Disaster-Damaged Roads and Bridges

Robert S. Kirk
Specialist in Transportation Policy

The major highways and bridges damaged during Hurricane Irene in 2011and the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis of August 1, 2007 are part of the federal-aid highway system and were therefore eligible for assistance under the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Emergency Relief Program (ER). Following a natural disaster or catastrophic failure (such as the I-35W bridge), ER funds are made available for both emergency repairs and restoration of federal-aid highway facilities to pre-disaster conditions.

The ER program is administered through the state departments of transportation in close coordination with FHWA’s division offices (there is one in each state). Although ER is a federal program, the decision to seek ER funding is made by the state, not by the federal government. Most observers see the close and ongoing relationship between the FHWA’s staff at the state level and their state counterparts as facilitating a quick coordinated response to disasters.

The program is funded by an annual $100 million authorization from the highway trust fund and general fund appropriations that are provided by Congress on a such sums as necessary basis. A number of issues have arisen in recent years: 
       The scope of eligible activities funded by ER has grown via legislative or FHWA waivers of eligibility criteria or changes in definitions that have expanded the scope of ER projects, sometimes beyond repairing or restoring highways to predisaster condition. 
       The $100 million annual authorization has been exceeded nearly every fiscal year, requiring appropriations that can lead to delay in funding permanent repairs. 
       Congress has directed that in some cases ER fully fund projects, without the normal 10% or 20% state matching share, putting financial pressure on the federal side of disaster highway assistance.
State requests for ER funding are at times backlogged. 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.

Date of Report: September
23, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R420
Price: $29.95

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