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Long-term highway funding stalls, leaving Missouri and Kansas projects out of gas


BY DAVE HELLING

dhelling@kcstar.com

Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission chairman Stephen Miller has been going from office to office in Washington trying to persuade Congress to do something it hasn’t done in years: pass a long-term fix for the nation’s highway system.




So far, not so good.

“Right now,” he said, “we’re in complete gridlock.”

That legislative clog loosened slightly over the weekend as senators stumbled toward a vote on a $317 billion bill designed to funnel money to states for future transportation projects such as bridges and highways. The current highway bill expires after Friday.

But a widespread aversion to higher taxes and deep disagreements over how to meet modern transportation needs are likely to stall significant progress. The potential result? Another temporary extension of the existing program, the 34th time Congress has kicked this particular can down a rapidly deteriorating road.

“Why can’t Congress do a better job on things like this?” a weary Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, asked Thursday. “We need to break that cycle if we can.”

Failure to pass a new transportation bill won’t affect current highway construction in Missouri or Kansas, at least in the short term. Orange cones and yellow warning signs will remain intact.

If Congress does nothing, though — if it fails, at minimum, to pass an extension of the current highway law — thousands of Federal Highway Administration workers could face furloughs at the end of the summer. That, in turn, could mean fewer permits, less project assistance and a rapid downturn in road-building work.

More broadly, officials in Missouri and Kansas say congressional failure to pass a long-term federal highway bill cripples planning for future projects, such as rebuilding interchanges or expanding highways. Some mass transit projects are also on hold.

“We want to know, with some degree of certainty, that the projects we’re starting to design now will have the money in five years,” said Mike King, the Kansas secretary of transportation.

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