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A roadwork slowdown reminiscent of the partial closure of the federal government last year is now hanging over the U.S. economy as Congress leaves town without a deal for replenishing the Highway Trust Fund.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, tried to move things along last week with a bill in the Senate Finance Committee that would provide a six-month, $9 billion infusion. His bill, funded largely by tax changes, failed to win over Republicans and the committee chose to leave for a weeklong recess without voting as they pursue a deal all sides might agree to.
“It’s important for the committee to get something done, but also to get it done right,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the committee.
The brinkmanship is not without precedent. Congress had to pass nine brief extensions from late 2009 until mid-2012, when it finally agreed on a two-year measure for highway and mass-transit programs. With the Highway Trust Fund expected to be depleted as soon as July, about 112,000 construction projects and almost 700,000 jobs await word on new federal funding.
“It is crunch time on transportation,” Wyden said, adding that he’s still going to work with Hatch to prevent a “paralyzing” halt of road projects.
The authority to levy an 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax that largely funds the $50 billion-a-year in federal monies for highway, bridge and mass transit projects expires Sept. 30. The U.S. Department of Transportation last month projected that the part of the trust fund that pays for road and bridge projects will have less than $4 billion in cash next month and will be short $400 million sometime in August. •