President Bush opened the gates Wednesday for spending a whopping $286.4 billion on roads and bridges, rail and bus facilities, bike paths and recreational trails, saying the projects from coast to coast would spur the economy and save lives.
Critics said the 1,000-page transportation bill was weighed down with pet projects to benefit nearly every member of Congress. The bill’s price tag over six years was $30 billion more than Bush had recommended, but he said he was proud to sign it.
“Highways just don’t happen,” Bush said. “People have got to show up and do the work to refit a highway or build a bridge, and they need new equipment to do so. So the bill I’m signing is going to help give hundreds of thousands of Americans good-paying jobs.”
To make his point, Bush signed the measure at a suburban Chicago Caterpillar Inc. plant in the home district of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The Republican leader oversaw nearly two years of negotiations on Capitol Hill to get a slimmed-down version that Bush would accept.
Bush spoke to workers outside the plant, surrounded by sparkling new construction machinery. Two cranes held a sign that said “Improving Highway Safety for America” over the portable stage set up with a wooden desk for the signing.
The bill signing was the second ceremony this week that has taken Bush from his Texas ranch, where he is spending about five weeks on a summer break from the White House. On Monday, Bush went to New Mexico to put a new energy policy into law.
Two years in the making, the highway bill contains more than 6,371 special projects valued at more than $24 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The distribution of the money for these projects “is based far more on political clout than on transportation need,” said Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for the group.
Alaska, the third-least populated state, for instance, got the fourth most money for special projects _ $941 million _ thanks largely to the work of its lone representative, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young. That included $231 million for a bridge near Anchorage to be named “Don Young’s Way” in honor of the Republican.
Bush mentioned a pet project in Hastert’s district _ the $207 million Prairie Parkway connector to join two major highways in the growing region outside Chicago. Hastert has been pushing the project for years although state officials are not convinced it’s the best way to ease traffic, and some critics say it will promote urban sprawl, hurt the environment and swallow up fertile farmland.
The homestate favors for lawmakers helped smooth over political differences between Bush and prominent Democrats who attended the ceremony, including Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois, and several House members.
The president had threatened to veto the highway bill if it was too fat. White House spokesman Trent Duffy said some House members wanted to spend $400 billion, so Bush considered $286.4 billion a good compromise.
Lawmakers backing the bill say projects were included on merit. They say money for infrastructure is well spent, especially considering that traffic congestion costs American drivers 3.6 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of wasted fuel every year. Substandard road conditions and roadside hazards are a factor in nearly one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities a year, officials say.
“This bill upgrades our transportation infrastructure and it’ll help save lives,” Bush said.
The president touted a provision that gives states incentives to increase seat belt usage and create vehicle stability standards by 2009 to prevent rollovers. And he noted that with this bill, the federal government is not raising gas taxes to pay for road projects as some have advocated. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook praised the bill’s safety provisions, particularly the improved standards to protect vehicle occupants in rollovers and side-impact crashes.
“This legislation could produce the most significant safety enhancement since air bags were required in all vehicles in the 1991 highway legislation,” she said.
On the Net:
White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov
Taxpayers for Common Sense: http://www.taxpayer.net
Public Citizen: http://www.citizen.org
Information on the bill, H.R. 3, may be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/