WASHINGTON — Providing money for highways and infrastructure historically has been one of Congress' easiest tasks. After all, it gives every lawmaker a chance to go home, stand in front of a bumpy highway and explain how he or she is making life better.
When Congress returns to Washington in mid-April after a spring recess, it plans to resume one of the fiercest and most consequential battles of this year: funding highways and infrastructure.
The Senate and House of Representatives are engaged in the kind of ugly impasse that's grown common in recent years. They're engaged in what Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., called "infrastructure chicken."
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Historically, Congress authorized road and infrastructure programs for several years at a time. Transportation planners could look ahead, set priorities and line up contractors. The last such comprehensive measure passed with strong bipartisan support in 2005. It expired four years later.
Since then, as bitter partisanship has become the legislative norm, Congress has been unable to craft a long-term plan. Short-term extensions have become routine. The latest expired March 31.
The Senate approved a two-year, $109 billion plan in mid-March with a strong bipartisan vote, but in the House, conservatives balked. As a result, Congress approved a last-minute 90-day extension, setting up a fresh fight that's likely to rage until the next deadline, June 30.
Back home, state transportation officials — already whipsawed by years of this gamesmanship — are watching nervously.
Transportation for America, a coalition of state and local agencies and interest groups, finds that the short-term extensions — and the unpredictability of the legislative process — is having an effect on projects.
"Most projects in progress will keep going," group spokesman David Goldberg said, "but agencies will scale back a bit, and hold off on major projects in the future, because they're not sure when reimbursement will come."
Projects most affected could include major highway reconstruction, new bridges and other "really big projects that cost multiple millions," said Jack Basso, the director of program finance and management at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The more profound impact is how much economic value is lost as a consequence of having ill-conditioned roads and infrastructure that makes it harder for people to get to work or for goods to reach their destination. "There is a practical effect," said Joshua Schank, the president and chief executive officer of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan policy research group.
Equally worrisome to transportation planners is how partisan confrontation is affecting an area of public policy that traditionally has been more about how to divide the riches.
"Bridges and highways are not necessarily Republican or Democrat. Everybody needs them," said Tom Trotter, AFL-CIO legislative representative.
This sector now is suffering from the same forces that have plagued other issues in recent years: the ailing economy, the conservative drive to slash spending, the end of "earmarks" — the local projects that lawmakers would insert into legislation — and the growing partisan chasm.
Money for the highway trust fund is supposed to come largely from the 18.4 cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, and for decades that was sufficient. The tax was last increased in 1993.
But because the 2005 transportation law made big commitments, and the economic slump that began in 2007 hurt revenue collection, the fund is expected to exhaust its ability to pay its commitments sometime next year. Money from the Treasury's general fund has been used to make up shortfalls in recent years.
House Republican leaders proposed a five-year, $260 billion transportation plan that would include revenue from fees from new domestic oil drilling, though more funding still would be needed.
Conservatives were unenthusiastic, raising questions not only about how the plan would be paid for but also about whether Washington should scale back its involvement in transportation.
The Senate bill, which did get bipartisan support, would fund programs at current levels, adjusted for inflation. It would be paid for through a series of taxes and fees, plus some other transportation-related cuts and adjustments.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., tried to curb some government regulation for infrastructure projects, including a bridge and raw-sewage plant in Kentucky.
"Do we really want to live in a country where we have to stop and count how many barnacles are on your bridge before you decide whether to rebuild the bridge?" he asked Senate colleagues. "We'll rebuild the bridge anyway, but we spend a year's time or more wasted on these studies that in the end we're going to rebuild the bridge." His bid to scale back regulatory requirements was defeated.
Many Democrats worry that not enough is being done to make infrastructure safer and more modern, and they say the federal role must remain strong.
"If one has great roads in their state and the next-door neighbor has not paved any roads, they are kind of stuck. That is why we have a national highway program," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The fractious debate promises more gridlock and down-to-the-wire politics — and probably little long-term relief.
"We have to have a long-deferred, extremely difficult conversation about how we pay for our infrastructure needs," said Goldberg, of the transportation coalition. "The gas tax is probably not the answer, but these are big, thorny issues, and no one is willing to take this up in an election year."
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