Highway Bill Issues in the News - Twenty Five Years Ago

Mon April 02, 2012 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

Then-President Ronald Reagan and the Congress had their own Highway Bill issues to contend with in 1987.
Then-President Ronald Reagan and the Congress had their own Highway Bill issues to contend with in 1987.

Editors’ Note: This article is the first in a series that looks back at news published throughout the years in the pages of Construction Equipment Guide. The following article appeared in the April 1st, 1987 edition of CEG, under the title "Congress Passes Highway Bill, But Reagan Is Saying No".

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The $87.9 billion Highway and Mass Transit Bill, vital to the nation’s economy and the construction industry, has passed the House and Senate but President Reagan is expected to blockbust it off the road.

As Construction Equipment Guide went to press, President Regan appeared about to veto the bill, which he blasted for “Pork Barrel” road and bridge projects, excessive spending, and defective mass transit financing.

On March 19th, the day it approved the House-Senate conference agreement on the bill, the Senate received a peppery letter from the President.

“It is distressing that Congress would turn legislation needed to meet nationwide highway and transit needs into a vehicle for special interest projects such as the Boston Canal Artery Project,” the President wrote. “If special projects are authorized, they should, at most, be funded from within states’ regular allocation of highway funds, as the Senate bill proposed.”

The President said he planned to veto the bill.

The veto was expected to come on Friday, March 27, according to Washington sources.

The bill is a compromise in which the House accepted the Senate’s wish to raise the rural interstate speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph, and the Senate, in return, accepted the House formula for financing the demo projects.

The House formula would fund the projects separately, not from the normal allocations the states receive from the Highway Trust Fund.

President Reagan attacked the Boston project sought by former Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neil, Jr., for an artery linking downtown Boston with the city’s waterfront.

A Reagan veto would send the bill back to Congress, where it would be scheduled for fast floor action. “It could be overridden very quickly by a two-thirds vote of both houses,” said Tony Obadal, counsel for the Associated Equipment Distributers (AED) in Washington D.C. “The votes are there in the House, and the President couldn’t stop them. He needs 34 votes in the Senate, and he may get them there.”

If it did not override a veto, Congress would have to address the thorny issues once again, losing more precious days for the spring construction season.

If Congress sustained a presidential veto, it is by no means certain that the House would pass a speed amendment again. In fact, Democratic spokesmen said there would be no effort to bring a new highway bill to the House floor this year, or at least not until autumn.

Republican senators thus face the prospect of losing their hard-fought victory for the higher speed limit. The Republican party could also be blamed, in the 1988 elections, for the economic consequences of a year without a Federal highway construction program.

The highway bill calls for $68.6 billion for highway construction and $18.9 for mass transit over the next five years.

A spokesman for the President said he would veto the bill because he is “adamantly opposed to the excessive spending that is in the bill.” The spokesman said the funding is about $10 billion too high.

Observers say the Senate may well sustain a veto because the Republican senators don’t want to further embarrass the President, who is already on the defensive because of the Iran arms sales.

The President also opposed the level of support for transit projects. He has had 10 days to sign or veto the bill after it was enrolled and sent to his desk.

Republican senators, according to sources, pleaded that the President’s advisors, presumably including new Chief of Staff Howard Baker, reconsider before sending the letter.

“Some senators felt that the advisors were painting the President into a corner,” said John Gentile of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) in Washington, D.C. “If the President signs the bill, he will be retracting his veto statement, backing up and suffering embarrassment. If he vetos it and is overridden, he will suffer a political defeat. Some feel that he should cut his losses by backing up. It would be a very close vote, but I think a veto would be overridden.”

The President, then, has been between a rock and a hard place. Industry groups, meanwhile, are growing increasingly impatient.

On Friday, March 20th, when it appeared the Senate would amend portions of the bill by amending the separate speed limit provision, which was being voted on separately, Highway Users spokesperson John Haisley declared via The Highway Users Federation hotline:

“The conference committee intended no such machinations. The search for statesmanship continues. I’ve seen enough of this national zoo. I’m flying to Maine. This is John Haisley hoping you can resolve this mess while I’m gone!”

Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D., N.Y.) said the unemployment rate would soar if the nation went through a construction season without a fully financed Federal highway program.

“A year without a highway program is like a year without a summer,” Moynihan said.

Said AED’s Obadal: ”This bill is exceptionally important to the construction industry, and to roads and bridges, which need this money.”

In a featured editorial on March 21, headlined “Highway Robbery and Necessity,” The New York Times said “Congress has larded the highway bill with almost $1 billion of pork,” adding that the highway bill taps $10 billion from the Treasury for mass transit aid beyond the money set aside for the purpose in the Highway Trust Fund. It cites these as flaws but says “a finished highway bill has to be the top priority . . . the financing dispute with the White House threatens to undo the package and throw the nation’s transportation program into disarray.”

“Hundreds of highway projects have already been delayed, at a cost by one estimate of 23,000 jobs,” the Times editorial declared. “In many Northeastern and Great Plains states, the construction season is severely limited by weather; each additional delay shortens it further.

“A survey by the National League of Cities indicates that delaying authorization reauthorization until July 1 would cancel 3,574 projects and cost 130,000 jobs. Reauthorization might take that long if the President vetos this bill . . . Mr. Reagan would serve the nation best by signing the highway bill, and legislators would do their job responsibly if they figured out a way to pay for it.”

In the five-year life of the bill, the interstate system of highways, begun in 1956, would be completed. It is now 98% finished at a cost of $102 billion in Federal funds and $13 billion in state funds.

The President has considerable support in opposing the demo projects.

“The 150 projects in the bill are not true demonstration projects,” said one observer. “They raise very serious problems which will have to be addressed. The projects are supposed to be on the basis of need, not politics. State highway departments are fed up!”

Said another: “It has become a tradeoff between ironing out these differences and getting a bill passed fast.”

The House and Senate had overwhelmingly approved their versions of the Highway and Mass Transit Bill early in February. A conference committee then worked out an agreement separating the provision to raise the speed limit from the rest of the bill. The House voted on March 18th, by 217 to 206, in favor of raising the limit, which would affect more than 75% of the nation’s interstate miles – 33,910 of the total 43,291 miles of highway.

The House passed the conference agreement March 18th and the Senate passed it March 19th. On March 20th, the Senate, as expected, also passed the speed limit provision.

After the Senate passed the speed limit provision, it became part of the overall highway bill which was sent to the White House.

The speed limit provision allows states to set the higher limit on rural interstates that are beyond areas with populations of at least 50,000.

Opponents of the higher limit were led by Rep. James J. Howard (D., N.J.) chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, who said the lower maximum had saved thousands of lives.

The 55 mph speed limit was imposed after the 1973 oil embargo. States faced the loss of up to 10% of their Federal highway funds if they didn’t set the limit.

The Highway Bill failed to pass Congress last year, partly due to urban legislators’ strong opposition to the higher speed limit. Western legislators strongly favor the higher limit.

“Our cops should be chasing robbers and drug dealers, not those going 56 miles per hour,” said Rep. Bill Richardson (D., N.M.). “What’s causing carnage on the highways of America is primarily drinking drivers, not speeders.”

Supporters of the higher limit also argue that rural interstates account for 19% of the nation’s highway traffic but only 4% of its highway fatalities.

From the end of the war until 1974, state and local governments set their own speed limits, which ranged from 55 mph in New York to none at all in Nevada and Montana.

Meanwhile, many states are completely drained of funds for federal highway construction projects. Illinois ran out of money Dec 31st for projects in all eight highway-aid categories. Alabama reported zero funds at the start of 1987 in six of eight categories.

The Highway Legislative Coalition in Washington, D.C. estimates that, unless a bill is enacted by May 1, about 1,500 road and bridge projects worth $2.3 billion will have to be deferred until 1988. If there’s no bill until late summer, an estimated $7 billion in projects will be affected.

“The moment of truth will arrive when the Federal highway program runs out of carryover spending authority,” said George A. Christie, vice president and chief economist for the F.W. Dodge Division of McGraw-Hill.

The Road Information Program (TRIP) in Washington said each $1 billion lost from the highway program takes with it 41,600 jobs from the economy. Total U.S. economic losses grow to an additional $1 billion each month the bill remains in limbo.

Congress has been under intense pressure to pass the bill, which was the second to be introduced in the House when it opened in January. The situation has slowly gained national attention. Now it’s in the page one spotlight and it’s a “do or die” situation.

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