Highway Construction

The Transportation Department predicts the highway account will be broke by September. | AP Photo


Washington now is facing a new crisis: the highway cliff.

Sometime in the next four months, the Highway Trust Fund — which pays for infrastructure projects across the nation — will run dry. And this slow-moving Congress, in the throes of a heated election year, has to figure out a way to fill the coffers or risk halting construction projects across the country.

The Department of Transportation estimates the fund’s highway account will be broke by the end of August, but that could change without warning. There aren’t many good options for lawmakers — particularly Republicans, who are loath to approve big-money projects, don’t much like shifting money around and are sure to resist even a minimal hike in the gas tax.

Few things rile up voters more than political stumbles leaving them stuck in traffic. Just ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And the timing couldn’t be worse, with funding slated to run out just months before voters head to the ballot box to vote in a critical election — providing the electorate with a fresh example of congressional dysfunction.

“It’s a crisis, it is,” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “The Highway Trust Fund goes insolvent in July or sometime around there, and so we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to fund it.”

Highway policy is pricey, complicated and fraught with regional tensions, and the process of rebuilding the trust fund could rattle the power hierarchies within the Capitol. It has bedeviled Speaker John Boehner before. Just two short years ago, the Ohio Republican proposed tying road projects to tax revenue from oil drilling. The idea failed to get momentum and blew up in his face.

This time, the situation is far more dire. Not only is the government’s authority to keep spending on transportation projects set to expire on Sept. 30 but the funding is running dry.

Multiple committees have jurisdiction, and even the most senior lawmakers charged with spearheading transportation policy say the decision-making process is parked in the posh leadership suites in the Capitol.

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