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Wednesday, November 21, 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 on these projects and constraining the funds available for other ER requests. 

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 5, 2012
Number of Pages: 12
Order Number: R42804
Price: $29.95

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