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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

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 recently damaged during Hurricanes Sandy and Irene are part of the federal-aid highway system and were therefore eligible for assistance under the Emergency Relief Program (ER) of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Following a natural disaster or catastrophic failure (such as a bridge collapse), ER funds are made available for both emergency repairs and restoration of federal-aid highway facilities to pre-disaster conditions.

State departments of transportation typically have close ongoing relationships with FHWA’s division offices in each state, which facilitate a quick, coordinated response to disasters. Although ER is a federal program, the decision to seek ER funding is made by the state, not by the federal government.

The program is funded by a permanent annual authorization of $100 million from the highway trust fund (HTF) along with general fund appropriations 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. As a result, in some cases the ER program has funded activities that have gone beyond repairing or restoring highways to pre-disaster 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, increasing the federal outlay for disaster highway assistance. 

The 112th Congress authorized an emergency relief program for public transportation systems. However, this program does not have a permanent funding source, and funds are to be provided only by appropriation. No money has been appropriated to or expended under this program.

Date of Report: November 1, 2012
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: R42804
Price: $29.95

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