WASHINGTON — — First came the budget debate. Next, it was the debt ceiling. Then, the FAA shutdown.
Now Maryland officials are keeping a wary eye on the latest congressional stalemate over federal spending, an impasse that has the potential to put dozens of highway projects and thousands of jobs in jeopardy.
When they return to Washington after the August recess, lawmakers will have less than a month to broker a compromise to reauthorize the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal tax on gasoline and approve using the money from that tax to pay for road and bridge projects.
The deadline is Sept. 30. Maryland receives roughly $45 million a month in federal highway funds.
The standoff comes just weeks after Congress failed to extend funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, causing a partial shutdown that left thousands of federal employees and contractors out of work.
Lawmakers ultimately passed a stopgap funding bill to keep the FAA running through mid-September.
Because construction projects require advance approval, transportation officials said they must decide soon whether to proceed with work scheduled for October. Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said she is hopeful lawmakers will reach a deal, but is making preparations in case they don't.
"We've looked at whether or not we should proceed with businesses as usual or whether we should, quite frankly, begin holding up in awarding additional projects until we have more confidence," Swaim-Staley said. "We'll have to make that decision, obviously, when we get a bit closer."
State officials would not say exactly which projects would be halted first as the deadline nears. Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan said most of the work would involve resurfacing, intersection improvements and new guardrails, rather than large-scale construction projects.
Maryland and other states are reimbursed for projects by the federal government, which means the state also could continue work under the assumption that Washington would eventually pay up. But given the emphasis on budget cutting at the federal level, that approach could now be risky.
Like funding for the FAA, spending on transportation has been lurching along under short-term extensions for years. The Republican-led House is considering a six-year highway bill that would allocate, on average, $35 billion a year for projects. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, is discussing a two-year bill with average annual spending of more than $54 billion.
The federal gas tax remains the major sticking point. Revenue from the tax has not kept pace with the demands of the county's aging infrastructure, but some House Republicans argue that the tax should be lowered, given the fragile U.S. economy.
If Congress can't reach an agreement on a long-term bill, lawmakers could approve another short-term extension.
Rep. Andy Harris, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he believes there is "no chance" Congress will let funding run out for transportation projects. The only question, he said, is the length of an extension.
The highway funding represents "so much of the economy, I don't think that anyone is going to take that chance," the Baltimore County Republican said.
Harris says he has met with highway contractors who are worried about a possible stalemate. "I don't think it's a reasonable concern," he said.
While FAA funding became caught up in a broader political fight over marginally related issues, such as funding for rural airports and the rules over unionizing airline employees, Harris said, the transportation bill is unencumbered by such baggage.
Maryland's two Democratic members on the transportation committee, Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County, did not respond to requests for comment.
James A. Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, said he remains hopeful that Washington can work out a long-term funding agreement that would allow transportation agencies across the country to better plan for large-scale construction projects.
But if nothing happens, he said, it would pummel an industry that has already lost jobs.
"It'd be a disaster. We are already in trouble," he said. "There would be a lot of people out on the street."