House Republican divide keeps lid on highway projects
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly every day, rush-hour traffic backs up for miles on both ends of the overburdened Brent Spence Bridge, which spans the Ohio River and links Cincinnati with its suburbs in Kentucky.
The bridge, one of the busiest in the U.S. interstate system, has been dubbed "functionally obsolete" by the federal government because its narrow four lanes on each level - originally designed as three lanes - create massive bottlenecks for traffic.
For commuters and businesses desperate for an improved crossing, the good news is that they have a powerful friend in Congress: U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican whose district includes Cincinnati suburbs.
But a $2.4 billion plan to replace the Interstate 71/75 bridge has gotten little help from Boehner's House of Representatives, which abandoned efforts to pass long-term federal highway funding in favor of two 90-day extensions, the second of which passed last week.
In the process, the highway bill has become a symbol of Boehner's frustrations in dealing with budget-conscious Republicans allied with the Tea Party movement.
It also is part of a broader debate over whether the U.S. government - at a time when the federal debt tops $15 trillion - should spend billions of dollars on much-needed projects that would create thousands of jobs.
That debate is behind much of the gridlock in Congress since Boehner became speaker of the 435-member House in 2011, leading a 242-member Republican majority that includes dozens of Tea Party-backed conservatives who say this is not the time to spend big on transportation projects.
The latest 90-day extension, "like the others before it, authorizes spending levels that are billions of dollars beyond the revenue in the Highway Trust Fund," said Representative Justin Amash, a Republican from western Michigan who voted against the extension last week. "It's more reckless and irresponsible deficit spending."
The 90-day measures would keep concrete pouring until the end of September into U.S. road, bridge and transit projects now under construction. But they do not provide the long-term funding that analysts say is needed for many projects - including replacement of the Brent Spence - to make it beyond the planning stage.
Last week, Boehner told reporters that if it were his choice, a long-term transportation bill would have been enacted weeks ago. But "the House decided it didn't want to vote for it," Boehner said, adding, "So you have to go to Plan B."
IMPACT ON JOBS
As a result, hundreds of thousands of construction jobs across the nation could go unfilled and road projects are likely to be delayed at a time when the U.S. unemployment rate remains at about 8.2 percent, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials noted.
"It's a torturous effect on these projects, not having a long-term bill," said Mark Policinski, chief executive of the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Regional Council of Governments. "Uncertainty cripples everybody's ability to plan and to execute projects."
Policinski said that for each one-month delay of the Brent Spence project, its total costs inflate by $8 million, or $96 million a year. That does not count the economic ripple effect of traffic delays on the clogged thoroughfare.
The 48-year-old bridge, named after a former Democratic congressman from Kentucky, is a lynchpin on the I-75 corridor linking Midwest automotive suppliers to newer foreign-owned car plants in the South. It carries more than $400 billion worth of freight annually.
Last November, Democratic President Barack Obama turned the bridge into a poster child for overwhelmed or crumbling U.S. roadways, using it as a backdrop to tout an infrastructure investment plan that was largely ignored by Congress.
Such interstate bridges have received heightened attention since 2007, when bridges over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Many states have projects waiting for long-term funding.
Nevada has a $1.8 billion redesign of Interstate 15 through the core of Las Vegas, dubbed "Project Neon" for the casino lights that surround the route. North Carolina has $1.2 billion worth of bridges and highways slated for reconstruction that will be put on ice if funding remains uncertain.
"If we continue to have the short-term resolutions, we would look at starting to have to delay projects and that would result in job losses," said Nicole Meister, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Transportation in Raleigh.
Delaying these projects would prevent about 41,000 jobs from being filled, she said.
With 17 percent unemployment in the construction industry, such jobs and the spill-over effects - demand for steel, concrete and construction machinery - would boost the U.S. economy as it struggles through energy-cost headwinds and lackluster job growth, analysts said.
But "a contractor is not going to make that commitment to buy a $750,000 piece of equipment if they don't know whether they'll have enough work to keep it busy," said Brian Deery, senior director of highway and transportation at the Associated General Contractors of America.
Boehner had wanted a long-term, five-year transportation construction bill, but the measure once touted as his signature jobs plan failed to get enough votes from either party.
Conservative Republicans revolted over its $260 billion price tag. Some Democrats and moderate Republicans from suburban districts balked at part of the plan that would end dedicated funding for mass transit projects.
Democrats also objected to linking contentious oil drilling projects to transportation construction.
The second short-term extension, backed by most Republicans and 69 of the 190 Democrats in the House, is largely devoid of these provisions. But Boehner did create a new obstacle by including in the bill approval of the Canada-to-U.S. Keystone XL oil pipeline that Obama has opposed.
Political analysts discount the notion that Republicans might want to sabotage job-creating projects to deny Obama any political credit in an election year. Republicans want credit for creating jobs, too, and will have to answer to frustrated contracting firms and other business groups.
"My take is that this is a symbol of the dysfunction that grips Congress: Even things they essentially agree on can't get passed," said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group in Washington.
House Republicans this week are expected to start negotiating a compromise with Senate Democrats.
The Senate last month rejected putting the Keystone plan in its two-year, $109 billion transportation bill and Obama has threatened a veto if Keystone makes it into a final bill.
Prospects for a House-Senate deal on longer-term transportation funding in the coming months seem bleak, as Senate Democrats are vowing to exclude Keystone - a provision meant to entice House Republican votes - from the measure.
"There will not be a bill before the election," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood predicted last week at an event sponsored by Politico.
"America's one big pothole right now," added LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois. "If the transportation bill passes, people go to work."