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Another Congressional stalemate: highway funding

Caltrans says its funding could be slashed by a nearly a third if Congress fails to reach agreement on a transportation bill.
Alice Walton/KPCC
Caltrans says its funding could be slashed by a nearly a third if Congress fails to reach agreement on a transportation bill.

Congress can practically smell the jet fumes, counting the hours till lawmakers leave town for the summer. But as the legislative clock winds down, the House and Senate are still split over funding for highway construction. If they can’t compromise, the money will start running out for road and bridge repairs.

Both the House and Senate have already passed temporary funding measures. The problem is, they don’t match up and neither side is willing to blink.

The House version uses "pension smoothing" to pay for part of the cost. The accounting procedure would lower the amount of money companies have to put into pensions over the next decade, which would increase a corporation's taxable income, providing more money for the highway transit fund.

The Senate version takes that off the table. Democrat Barbara Boxer of California says the Senate measure also requires Congress to come up with a long-term solution after the November mid-term elections. She says the lame duck session is the place to do this type of a bill because "the passion of the elections will have subsided and it’s long enough before the next one to just get down and take politics out of the equation."

The Highway Trust Fund has been running out of money for years. Highway and bridge construction around the country is funded in part by the 18-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax. That gas tax hasn't been raised in two decades and consumers are increasingly choosing fuel-efficient and alternative energy cars.

Congress has been loathe to discuss raising the gas tax. In fact, last night, the Senate rejected a measure by Utah Republican Mike Lee to roll back the tax to under 4-cents a gallon, inviting states to raise their own revenue.

But House Republicans don't like the Senate version. Speaker John Boehner promised to strip out the Senate provisions and send it back. His office also points out that the Senate version is nearly $2 billion short on the revenue side. His office says, "the only responsible course is for the Senate to pass the original House-passed highway bill, which we will soon send back to them.”

If the two sides can’t agree, the Transportation Department starts cutting payments to Caltrans by nearly a third starting on Friday. Caltrans says it has enough cash on hand to continue planned projects for the next three months.

LA's Metro will also be getting 28% less, which works out to $20 million a month. David Yale, Metro’s countywide planner, says there’s enough money to float the federal government for about five months because LA is a "self-help county." In other words, three times, LA County residents have voted to raise local sales taxes to pay for transit. 

It's unlikely Congress will leave town without some sort of agreement. But the wheeling and dealing is likely to continue right up until members board their black SUV's for the airport.