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Congress creates a transportation time bomb

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The big political news of last week, the brief skirmish between House Speaker John A. Boehner and President Barack Obama over whether the president would address Congress on Wednesday or Thursday, was the classic sort of playground standoff that just annoys the heck out of most Americans. How perfect that a speech on job creation (something that should matter to all involved) gets shelved so that it won't interfere with a Republican presidential candidates' debate or housekeeping votes on the House floor. That's Washington in all its inaction.

Overshadowed in this brouhaha is something everyone involved really ought to be talking about: Washington's failure to approve a transportation spending plan. On the same day that insiders were focused on Mr. Boehner's refusal, President Obama was calling attention to the fact that the current transportation bill is set to expire Sept. 30.

That's a far more meaningful deadline than any one-day delay in rolling out the jobs proposal — particularly given the likelihood that House Republicans will nix whatever Mr. Obama wants to do to improve the economy anyway. Unless Congress extends legislation to fund highways, transit and air travel, the economy could lose 1 million more jobs.

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Americans may recall that the Federal Aviation Administration was partially shut down for two weeks this summer, and ongoing construction projects were halted, because an extension of that agency's funding couldn't be reached. And that inaction cost the U.S. a mere $30 million a day.

This time, the stakes are much higher, as the federal government spends $42 billion annually on transportation projects. Never mind the thousands of government workers who will lose their jobs without pay; the real impact will be on the contractors and suppliers across the country who build and maintain the nation's transportation infrastructure. That's the kind of anti-stimulus that could ensure a double-dip recession.

No wonder Mr. Obama's call was echoed by top officials from both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, two sides seldom in agreement. Without an extension of the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal tax on gasoline (as well as fees charged for heavy vehicles and truck tires), the trust fund that finances highway and transit projects will simply run out of money.

Republican leaders may minimize the risk of a shutdown, but their track record on deadline decision-making is not so great. The last time the GOP went to the mattresses over long-term spending, a major bond rating agency stripped away the nation's triple-A rating.

Meanwhile, renewing the gas tax may be seen by tea party loyalists as an example of raising taxes. Some may expect offsets in domestic spending (never mind that transportation spending has been historically financed separately). Others may use the legislation as a platform to kill Amtrak or the Obama high-speed rail initiative.

If Washington had its act together, Congress would pass not some one- or two-year extension but a six-year spending plan with vision, one that overhauled both the way this country finances transportation and the projects it pursues. As cars become increasingly fuel efficient, the U.S. can't continue to pay for improvements primarily through the gas tax. And we can't afford to continue to build roads and not invest in more energy-efficient public transit alternatives.

Admittedly, that would seem unlikely in a Congress that can't even agree to raise the debt ceiling until the 11th hour. Nor is it a good sign that House Republicans have been pushing for an overall reduction in federal transportation spending — as if the U.S. Highway Trust Fund were the cause of the country's debt problems instead of the partial cure, given that improved transportation systems inevitably foster new jobs and growth.

The bottom line is that everyone, from management to labor to the White House and the House Republican Caucus, wants a transportation bill, and failing to pass one could be nothing short of catastrophic for the economy. So naturally, Congress dithers and the deadline looms.

Tick, tick, tick.

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