Senate Passes Big Bucks Highway Bill

Congress and the White House are preparing for what could be arduous negotiations on long-overdue legislation to fund highway and transit projects and provide for safer and less crowded driving conditions.

The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a six-year, $295 billion bill, prompting the White House to repeat a warning that that was too much money and would warrant a presidential veto.

The House in March approved a $284 billion package, the maximum level the administration deemed acceptable. In addition, the House bill is fundamentally different, setting aside $12 billion for some 4,000 specific projects that lawmakers contend are vital to their districts and critics label as “pork.”

The last six-year bill expired in September 2003, but Congress was unable to come up with a compromise last year because of House-Senate differences and a White House threat that any bill that added to the federal deficit would be vetoed.

Instead, Congress has had to approve six temporary extensions at the lower spending levels of the 1998-2003 act. The latest extension runs out May 31.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the $11 billion gap between the House and Senate numbers was “a very small difference and that’s a great advantage to start” the negotiations.

On the House side, Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young said, “We are going to get a bill.” Young questioned some of the revenue raising measures the Senate proposed to add the $11 billion without increasing the deficit, but said about $5 billion from those measures were “true dollars” that might be acceptable. The final decision, he said, was up to the White House and congressional leaders.

Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., the minority leader on the Environment Committee, urged the White House to reconsider what would be the first veto of the Bush presidency.

Even at $295 billion, he said, “we will barely be able to keep pace with the enormous maintenance needs facing our surface transportation system with little left over for improvement.”

He and others cited figures that poor road conditions are a factor in one-third of every year’s 42,000 traffic fatalities, and that nearly a third of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient. Lawmakers also said that every $1 billion spent on highway construction creates 47,000 jobs.

Senate Republicans, in a rare show of division with the White House, strongly backed the bill, with 46 of 55 Republicans supporting the measure. The vote was 89-11.

While the Senate bill lacks the House bill’s thousands of projects slated for individual congressional districts, senators pointed out the benefits it would bring their states. For example, Massachusetts Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry said their state would get $560 million more for transit programs and $600 million more for highways.

And Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said his state got the second-highest increase in highway funding, with a 46 percent boost.

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director John Horsley said states are delaying projects as the construction season gets into full swing. If an agreement can be reached by May 31, “state transportation departments and the traveling public will have reason to celebrate.”

On the other side, Erich Zimmermann, policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that by passing “a bloated bill that breaks the budget, the Senate has placed a big veto bulls eye on the back of the legislation.”

In addition to granting money to states to repair and build roads and bridges, the bill would provide more than $50 billion for public transit and more than $6 billion for safety programs.

The legislation funds many relatively small programs _ bike routes to schools, covered bridges, ferry terminals _ as well as programs to promote fuel-efficient vehicles and authorize tolls to finance new interstate lanes.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., won voice vote approval of an amendment that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to update fuel economy testing to reflect real-life driving conditions. Gas mileage stickers on new cars now inflate true fuel economy performance by 10 percent to 30 percent.

Another difference between the House and the Senate is the formula by which the federal government divides up highway trust fund money for the states. The trust fund comes from the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax, and about half the states, mainly from fast-growing or heavily traveled areas, complain that they pay more into the fund than they get back.

Both chambers are seeking to increase the minimum rate of return, which is now 90.5 cents for every dollar states pay into the trust fund.


The bill is H.R. 3

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© 2005 The Associated Press