Before Congress left town for a two-week recess, lawmakers approved a 90-day extension of transportation funding.
But there are clear divisions that jeopardize passage of a long-range plan before the 2012 elections, and some of those were on display Monday in the Quad-Cities.
At a morning news conference, U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., blamed Senate Democrats for standing in the way of a long-range plan. In the afternoon, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters it was the Republican House Speaker John Boehner who blocked a bipartisan Senate-approved plan from getting an up-or-down vote.
Both Republicans and Democrats laud the job-creation potential of transportation projects, but it’s been more than two years since the last long-range plan expired and lawmakers have not been able to agree on an extension. As a consequence, nine short-term measures have been pushed through. The latest is a 90-day reprieve that, while allowing funds to keep flowing to projects through the summer, still hamstrings officials in their ability to plan for upgrades to roads, bridges, mass transit and other projects.
Schilling targeted the Senate for the breakdown, saying its two-year plan was too short-term.
“This is unacceptable,” he said. “People didn’t send them to Washington to sit around and do nothing.”
The Colona Republican praised a five-year, $260 billion House plan that was being pushed by the party’s leadership. The plan didn’t raise taxes and provided longer-term certainty, he said. Bipartisan opposition in the House stymied the plan, however, and it wasn’t even brought up for a vote.
In the meantime, the Senate passed a bill, 77-24, that called for spending $109 billion over two years. Durbin said House Republicans should have demanded that the speaker call it up for a yes-or-no vote, and he dismissed the idea the Senate plan didn’t look far enough into the future.
“Two years wasn’t long enough, so they gave us 90 days,” Durbin told reporters while making a series of stops in the Quad-Cities. “That’s a pretty weak argument.”
The House rejected the Senate’s plan on a procedural vote, then passed the 90-day stopgap, which the Senate and White House then approved.
Durbin faulted the House plan, saying it it shortchanged Illinois roads and bridges, along with making cuts to mass transit.
In the Quad-Cities, officials say there are no large-scale projects in immediate danger of losing funding or being delayed because of the lack of action in Washington, D.C. Work on the Interstate-74 corridor project is using existing funds, and construction on the span itself isn’t likely to take place until fiscal year 2016.
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Still, the lack of a long-term plan filters down to City Halls and county offices. Federal funding makes up the bulk of road, bridge and transit funding for local governments, much of it routed through state departments of transportation.
With month-to-month extensions, that planning gets more difficult.
“If this were to continue to happen after the election, then it would be of significant concern,” said Denise Bulat, executive director of the Bi-State Regional Commission.
Local transportation officials have pushed for a long-term plan that includes money in competitive programs, which they believe they would be well-positioned to compete for. Both Durbin and Schilling said they back such programs.
Not all lawmakers are so pessimistic that a deal can’t be reached until after the elections. Durbin urged Illinois Republican lawmakers to call on Boehner to put the Senate’s plan up for a vote.
Meanwhile, Schilling said that members of both parties ought to be willing to work together to get legislation passed.
“If we can get 70 to 80 percent of what we’re looking for, that’s a good thing, and we need to move it forward,” he said.