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Congress near another stopgap fix, this time on road funds

WASHINGTON — It’s another fiscal crisis, with major potential risks to the economy. Congress again is struggling to put together a patchwork solution, this one 10 months at best, before lawmakers take another vacation.

Sound familiar?

It should. Only this time, one of the basic tasks for lawmakers — funding road and bridge projects around the country — is at risk.

With only two weeks before Congress is to begin a monthlong recess, House and Senate lawmakers have yet to come to terms on how to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, putting nearly 115,000 projects around the country, including 926 in Massachusetts, in jeopardy.


The House on Tuesday approved legislation, by a 367-55 vote, that would provide $10.8 billion, enough to fund the projects until May 2015. The Senate could take up similar legislation later this week, and President Obama has suggested he would sign it.

But no one was happy about another temporary solution. In the past, Congress has often passed multiyear transportation spending bills.

“This is crazy. It’s a crazy way to run business,” said Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who is on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “No one who cares about transportation could call this a good deal. But unfortunately it’s the best deal we can get at the moment. And something is better than nothing.”

For months, the highway bill gave Obama and House Speaker John Boehner another reason to engage in a war of words, talking past each other rather than with each other.

Obama is highlighting the issue throughout the week, releasing reports, making speeches, and scheduling a trip to a failing bridge in Delaware on Thursday. During a visit to a transportation research facility in McLean, Va., on Tuesday, the president said he would support the short-term extension because it would keep current construction projects going.


“All this does is set us up for the same crisis a few months from now,” Obama said. “Congress shouldn’t pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road . . . careening from crisis to crisis when it comes to something as basic as our infrastructure.”

Obama in April proposed a plan that would spend $302 billion on transportation over four years. But the plan was financed in part by closing business tax loopholes that Republicans consider nonstarters.

Boehner criticized Obama for staging a photo opportunity rather than engaging in the nitty-gritty work of passing bills on Capitol Hill.

“If the president has a plan for a longer-term highway bill, he ought to get the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass it, and we’ll take a look at it,” Boehner said during a news conference. “But until then, giving speeches about a long-term highway bill is frankly just more rhetoric.”

If Congress fails to pass the temporary fix, the Obama administration estimates that nearly 15,000 jobs will be jeopardized in Massachusetts because 926 active highway and transit projects will be slowed or stopped.

For Massachusetts, nearly $1 billion in annual funding is at stake. That accounts for about half of the needed money, with the state covering the other half for each of the projects.

If there is a prolonged funding shortage, the final phase of the Green Line extension in Medford and a planned $1 billion South Station expansion could be derailed.


A shortage would also affect reconstruction of Interstate 91 in Springfield, resurfacing of US Route 1 in Peabody, and a new lane on Route 128 north of Wellesley. Other projects potentially at risk include a harbor walking path in Dorchester and a new pedestrian bridge in Western Massachusetts.

“The bottom line is, if Congress does not come up with a solution, it will be catastrophic for our highway and transit programs in Massachusetts,” said Richard A. Davey, state transportation secretary. “Certainly our customers would see impacts on their commute. They would see bumpy roads, closed lanes, potentially some closed bridges.”

While the impacts would be broad, Davey said it would take several months for such effects to be seen.

And even though he is pleased with House legislation that would temporarily keep the funding, he said it is growing difficult to implement plans for construction that can sometimes take years from conception to completion.

“Not only is it hard, it’s just damn silly,” Davey said. “When you don’t know what kind of revenues you can have to fund these projects, why bother to spend the time [planning for them]? . . . Congress, the president — whoever — just need to get on with a long-term solution.”

If a solution isn’t found, the US Department of Transportation has warned states that it will start slowing its payments. The account had $8.1 billion in it at the end of May, but the account is projected to have a shortfall by late August if Congress doesn’t take any action.


The fund has dried up in part because it relies on an 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax that is not indexed to inflation and has not been increased since 1993, even as cars have become more fuel-efficient and construction has grown more expensive. Efforts to raise the tax have failed to gain traction.

“We have a big hole in the transportation budget that is only going to get wider and wider and deeper and deeper as each year goes by,” Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in an interview. “We have to come together on a bipartisan basis to find new revenue streams to fund these transportation needs.”

Markey said he will probably support the legislation, even though it is a short-term fix. Senator Elizabeth Warren said she was “pleased” with the House passage but added, “We need to do more.” She did not elaborate, nor did she say if she would support the temporary fix passed by the House.

The House legislation used an accounting maneuver that will delay payments that corporations make to pension funds. The change, called pension smoothing, would lower corporate pension requirements over 10 years, increasing the company’s taxable income and giving more funds to the government.

Several conservative groups — including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America — urged members of Congress to vote against the measure. The groups called the legislation “another highway bailout,” saying there is excessive spending in highway bills and the latest bill amounts to “budget gimmicks.”


But congressional members in both parties concluded that a depletion of transportation funds, which are utilized in almost every district, would go too far. In the end, the bill got broad bipartisan support, with 181 Republicans and 186 Democrats voting for it. All nine members of the Massachusetts delegation supported it, although reluctantly.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, said during debate on Tuesday: “It means we might do another short-term, another short-term, another short-term . . . This should be a long-term bill.”

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