Congress Approves Massive Highway Bill

Thu August 04, 2005 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Rep. James Oberstar was late Friday for the final debate on the huge highway and mass transit legislation he had spent years helping to craft. Like many drivers around the country heading for work, he was stuck in traffic.

The hope is that the six-year, $286.4 billion infrastructure bill that Oberstar, top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, and others helped steer through Congress will help alleviate some of those traffic jams and make it easier for Americans to travel with greater safety and comfort.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., speaking shortly before the House overwhelmingly passed the bill, also had a real-life perspective, saying that after passage maybe fathers would have to answer the question "Daddy, when are we going to get there?" three or four fewer times in their lives.

The Senate later voted 91-4 to send the legislation to the president as lawmakers prepared to head home for their summer break carrying promises of new highway and bridge projects, rail and bus facilities, and bike paths and recreational trails they had secured for their states and districts.

President Bush, in a statement, promised to sign the bill that he said "will strengthen and modernize the transportation networks vital to America’s continued economic growth."

Under the legislation, each state receives a share of federal highway funding depending on their contributions _ through the federal gas tax — to the Highway Trust Fund. The bill, running more than 1,000 pages, also specifies thousands of projects requested by individual members.

Wisconsin municipalities would receive about $74.4 million for urban road projects slated to begin in 2008 or 2009, said Steven Coons, Wisconsin Department of Transportation program officer.

The projects would be funded with 80 percent federal money and 20 percent local dollars, and include work on urban roads that carry more than just local traffic as well as ride-sharing and bike-pedestrian projects.

Forty-nine projects in cities across Wisconsin would be eligible for the money, Coons said. The bill also would earmark money for rural road work, bridge rehabilitation, congestion reduction and air quality projects in the state, he said.

Other projects range from two bridges in Alaska, one named for House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, funded at more than $450 million, to $72,000 for a bus in Cornwall, N.Y.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, which lists 6,361 of these projects valued at $23 billion, and other watchdog groups say such projects are wasteful, handed out as political rewards.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cited dozens of what he suggested were questionable projects in a highway bill, including $3 million to fund production of a documentary about infrastructure advancements in Alaska.

The bill, he said, is "terrifying in its fiscal consequences and disappointing for the lack of fiscal discipline." Joining McCain in voting against the bill were Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

But other lawmakers say the projects are determined on merit and see them as essential to their states and communities.

They say money for infrastructure is well spent when 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 annually, officials say, and every $1 billion in highway construction creates 47,500 jobs.

"I don’t think there is anything this Congress could do more definitively to put people back to work, to stimulate our economy to increase our efficiency, our competitiveness, both nationally and internationally," said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a top Democrat on the Transportation Committee.

The bill allots more than $50 billion for transit programs and $6 billion for transportation safety.

The bill expands toll pilot projects for new roads as a way to ease congestion, and it gives states authority to set rules for access to car pool lanes by single-occupancy hybrid vehicles.

The legislation covers 2004-2009 and comes nearly two years after the 1998-2003 act expired. Congress on Friday had to approve the 12th temporary extension of the old act to keep money flowing to the states while it tried to come up with a new, more generous bill.

A main cause for the delay was a rift between Congress, demanding a maximum amount of spending on the infrastructure, and the White House, which threatened to veto any bill that added to the federal deficit.