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Transportation takes center stage next week

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press

Bob Burger, an employee of Choice Construction Cos. Inc., Menomonee Falls, sets the last beam of a tunnel in the Mitchell Interchange on Wednesday in Milwaukee. Federal highway programs will expire Sept. 30 unless Congress passes short-term extension legislation. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Washington — Bills necessary to avoid shutdowns of federal transportation and aviation programs are high on Congress’ to-do list when it returns to work next week.

President Barack Obama says as many as 1 million jobs are at risk without action.

Both the White House and House Republicans signaled last week that they want to avoid such a scenario, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Federal highway programs, and the fuel taxes that pay for them, will expire Sept. 30 unless Congress passes short-term extension legislation. It would be the eighth such stopgap effort in the past two years. Money for hundreds of construction projects across the country would be held up without passage.

Similarly, authority for the Federal Aviation Administration expires Sept. 16. The agency has been operating under a series of 21 short-term extensions since 2007. A standoff between the House and Senate partially shut down the FAA for two weeks this summer. Nearly 4,000 employees were furloughed, more than 200 stop-work orders were issued for airport construction and other projects, and tens of thousands of workers in construction-related industries were laid off.

Layoffs in the ailing construction industry would be many times greater than that if highway programs expire, transportation experts said.

The president said 4,000 workers immediately would be furloughed without pay if the highway program isn’t extended, and a significant delay could lead to 1 million workers losing their jobs during the next year.

Transportation programs — road and bridge repairs and transit subsidies — have wide, bipartisan support in Congress. The problem is money. Revenue from the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax and 24.4 cents a gallon diesel tax that pay for programs is declining.

With House Republicans determined to force the government to live within its means, and Senate Democrats reluctant to cut core programs, almost any bill with a price tag requires a struggle for passage — even disaster relief for hurricane victims.

“Everything is in gridlock, and transportation happens to be visible and suffering largely because of an accident of timing,” said transportation consultant Mort Downey, a former Obama adviser. “The same problem would be occurring with other programs if they were up for extension.”

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