House Takes Up Highway Bill Opposed by White House

Fri April 02, 2004 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) House lawmakers lined up behind a widely popular $275 billion bill to finance highway and transit projects, in direct challenge to the White House, which says the legislation would swell the deficit and deserves to be vetoed.

"Failure to address our transportation needs will leave our country behind," said Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-AK, who has confronted the administration veto threat by saying the House bill, rather than being too costly, doesn’t go far enough in meeting the nation’s infrastructure needs.

The House is to vote on the legislation today, setting up negotiations with the Senate, which in February approved a larger, $318 billion bill for the next six years. The administration said that bill too would be subject to what could be the first veto of President Bush’s presidency.

While some fiscal conservatives sided with the administration on the need to rein in spending, the legislation enjoyed popular support among lawmakers eager to reduce congestion and improve safety on their local roads and bring home construction jobs.

"This is the biggest jobs bill that we will vote on in this Congress," said Rep. John Duncan, R-TN, a Transportation Committee member.

The legislation also allows members to gain special projects they say reflect local needs but are regarded as "pork" by fiscal watchdogs. Critics mentioned $4 million for graffiti elimination in New York; $2 million for a high-speed catamaran ferry in Massachusetts; $1.5 million for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI; and $590,000 for sidewalk revitalization in Eastman, GA.

Alaska, Young’s state, is one of the winners in getting a portion of the $11 billion in high-priority projects.

The 1998-2003 highway bill was funded at a $218 billion level, and the White House has proposed $256 billion for the 2004-2009 period. Young and his allies have pushed for $375 billion, saying that is the amount the Transportation Department says is needed just to maintain the nation’s existing surface transportation.

"Why some bean counters think that we can do this bill on the cheap when the infrastructure needs of our country are crying out for repairs is beyond me," said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-OH, a committee member.

Young suggested paying for the increase by raising the federal gas tax, now 18.4 cents a gallon, by about 5 cents, an idea rejected by the administration. The gas tax goes into the highway trust fund, the source of revenue for federal highway grants to the states.

The House bill authorizes $217.4 billion for highways, $51.5 billion for public transit and about $6 billion for safety and research programs.

The 1998-2003 bill expired last September and has been given two short-term extensions, the second of which runs out at the end of April. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said he would oppose another extension if Congress and the White House can’t come to terms on a bill.

"These unnecessary delays have cost our nation roughly 100,000 jobs," he said.

In addition to the funding level, there’s dissension over how to divide up the federal money, with lawmakers from some of the larger, fast-growing states complaining that their states pay more into the highway trust fund than they get back from Washington.

The Senate bill answers some of the complaints of "donor" states by promising that by 2009, the last year of the program, every state will get at least 95 cents back for every dollar it puts into the trust fund. The current law sets the minimum guarantee at 90.5 cents.

The House bill does not have that provision, although it does have language saying the bill can be reopened in two years for re-negotiation if Congress fails to enact a law guaranteeing the 95-cent return. The White House strongly opposes that provision, saying it would lead to more spending.

The committee says that America wastes $70 billion every year due to traffic congestion and that one-third of the 42,000 highway fatalities in a year are due to substandard road conditions.