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Congress keeps road funds going

House members headed for the door Thursday as their five-week recess loomed. This Congress is likely to be one of the least productive in history.

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

House members headed for the door Thursday as their five-week recess loomed. This Congress is likely to be one of the least productive in history.

WASHINGTON – Congress on Thursday approved a short-term bill to pay for highway and transit projects for the next nine months, waiting until just hours before lawmakers start a five-week recess to make sure construction money continued flowing to their home states.

The move allowed state transportation officials in Massachusetts and elsewhere to relax, at least for a few months, after weeks of partisan brinksmanship threatened funding for key projects throughout the states. Finally, with the SUV’s and cars lined up to whisk some lawmakers to the airport, the House and Senate acted in a rare display of unity.

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Passage of the $10.8 billion transportation bill means that projects in all corners of Massachusetts — from the reconstruction of Interstate 91 in Springfield to resurfacing of Route 1 in Peabody — can move forward without concerns over federal financing.

Without it, transportation funding would have been cut on Friday by about 30 percent. For Massachusetts, nearly 15,000 jobs would have been jeopardized because 926 active highway and transit projects would have been slowed or stopped. Now the status quo is preserved — at least until May, when the temporary funding in the bill dries up.

“At least for tomorrow the bills will be paid, the projects will continue. For the moment, I guess it’s a sigh of relief,” said Richard A. Davey, Massachusetts state transportation secretary. “But we know come next spring, we’ll be at the precipice again.”

Passage of the transportation funding bill was one of the few accomplishments Congress made on Thursday, as members sprinted toward their vacation deadline. The bill passed the Senate Thursday night, 81-13.

On other fronts, dysfunction and disarray ruled the day. House Speaker John Boehner abruptly canceled a planned vote to provide $659 million in emergency spending to address the surge of young immigrants coming from Central America.

Boehner, Republican from Ohio, pulled the vote because of opposition to the bill from conservative Republicans, but he later huddled with his GOP colleagues and said more votes might be held on Friday. Illustrating some of the disarray of the day, a top Democrat said some of their party’s members had already left, scrambling to get to the airport, and would have to be called back to the Capitol.

With just a few months left, this Congress is likely to be one of the least productive in history. It has enacted only 142 laws, the fewest of any Congress in the past two decades over a similar time period, according to the Pew Research Center. The fact that such a routine item — funding for politically popular road projects — generated high drama and was then trumpeted as a major accomplishment is just another indication, some Democratic lawmakers and outside observers said, of how low the bar has been set in Washington.

“It’s just shameful! Shameful!” said Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon. “This has been bipartisan, forever! Now we’re here, limping along with just another patch.”

The funding for transportation projects was drying up in large part because the Highway Trust Fund relies on an 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax that is not indexed to inflation. It has not been increased since 1993, even as cars have become more fuel efficient and construction costs have grown.

For months, transportation officials warned of the shortfall. The Department of Transportation said its account would have a shortfall by late August if Congress took no action, and it would start slowing its payments to states.

For Massachusetts, nearly $1 billion in annual funding was at stake, about half the total amount of money for the projects since the state covers the other half.

A prolonged funding shortage could have derailed the final phase of the MBTA’s Green Line extension in Medford, and a planned $1 billion South Station expansion.

Active highway projects would have stalled, with orange cones staying put but little asphalt being laid down. A harbor walking path in Dorchester was at risk, as was a new pedestrian bridge in Western Massachusetts.

State transportation officials said they could have gotten by in short-term — in the hopes that the funding would come later — and it would have taken several months for the effects to be readily apparent.

But they warn that Congress’s patch-work solutions are making it increasingly difficult to plan for construction projects that are often years in the making.

“The federal government asks us to do 5-, 10-year plans. The irony is we get seven, eight months of funding,” Davey said. “You’ve got Congress asking us for long-term plans without the corresponding long-term funding commitment.”

Massachusetts lawmakers have all supported the short-term funding plan, although with reluctance.

“This is the world we live in at the moment,” said Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who is on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “We keep kicking the can down the road on everything it’s not good leadership and it’s not good government.”

Capuano said he would rather have a six-year bill without any federal funding at all.

“I wouldn’t vote for that, but at least you could plan,” he said. “This is the worst. You can’t even plan. What road can you build? What Green Line extension can you build? It’s just not a way to run government and not a way to run business either.”

In April, President Obama proposed spending $302 billion on transportation over four years. But his plan was financed in part by closing business tax loopholes, a move Republicans oppose.

With no long-term funding plan under discussion, Congress began turning toward a short-term fix just to get through the current construction season.

Two weeks ago, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation that would provide $10.8 billion, enough to fund projects until May 2015. The bill relied on an accounting maneuver that would lower corporate pension requirements over 10 years, thereby raising companies’ taxable income and giving more funds to the government.

The accounting practice is considered a gimmick by some financial watchdogs.

The Senate this week overwhelmingly passed legislation that aimed to provide $8.1 billion, enough to fund the projects until December. Rather than use the so-called “pension smoothing,’’ the Senate bill would raise more federal money by increasing compliance with tax rules.

A technical error in the Senate legislation meant the funding fell $2 billion short — an error that House critics seized upon.

There were several disputes between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate. The Senate wanted to fund the projects until December, planning to pass a long-term bill during a lame duck session of Congress. The House wanted to fund them until May, waiting until a new session of Congress — when Republicans think they may control both House and Senate — to deal with a long-term plan.

But the House refused to budge. On Thursday, with the clock ticking down, they rejected the Senate proposal.

Several hours later, the Senate simply passed the House plan.

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.
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