Senate Passes Major Highway Bill

Mon February 16, 2004 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Defying a presidential veto threat, the Senate on Feb. 12 overwhelmingly approved a highway spending bill that would bring jobs and billions of dollars in new construction money to states across the country.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 76-21 to pass a six-year, $318 billion highway and mass transit spending bill, replacing the current six-year program that expires at the end of this month. The vote margin would be enough to override a possible presidential veto.

"Everybody agrees we need to put much more money into road, highways, bridges and mass transit," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-MO, a chief sponsor. "This bill does that."

In Rhode Island, the bill includes a provision allowing the state to use between $30 million and $40 million to build a transportation center near T.F. Green Airport in Warwick.

The project, first proposed by Gov. Lincoln Almond, calls for an Amtrak station and rental car parking garage. These buildings would be connected to the airport terminal by an elevated "people mover." The estimated cost is $168 million.

The provision was authored by Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-RI, and former Warwick mayor. The money would reroute funding used for bridge construction to the airport project.

The bill also would provide $1.2 billion in highway funding and $117 million in transit money for Rhode Island over the next six years.

The $318 billion sought by the Senate far outstrips the $218 billion approved for the current six-year plan and the $256 billion the administration insists should be the ceiling at a time when the government faces record-high budget deficits. The House has yet to act on its bill. Some House members say the Senate total is too low to fix the nation’s crumbling highways.

The administration says it would recommend that Bush use his veto authority for the first time in his presidency if the final bill is at the Senate spending level.

"This is the first test for the Congress when it comes to spending restraint," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. ”We urge Congress to hold the line on spending.’

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said conservative estimates are that the bill will create 1.6 million jobs over its lifetime. It is politically important to many lawmakers eager to direct federal spending to their states and districts.

Showing their willingness to take on the president, senators voted 78-20 to defeat an amendment by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, to reduce the funding to the president’s $256 billion figure.

With Democrats generally supporting the bill, the fight was mainly among Republicans.

"The party of fiscal sanity, the party of smaller government," said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, is supporting a bill "when the president of the United States and the American people are saying enough, enough deficit spending."

Senate supporters denied that it increased the deficit, saying all the money comes out of the highway trust fund paid for by the 18.4-cent federal tax that drivers pay at the gas pump. The Senate Finance Committee outlined several budgetary actions, some questioned by critics of the bill, to increase the flow of money into the trust fund.

Earlier, the Senate voted 86-11 to end a filibuster from conservatives who agreed with the administration that the deficit-ridden government can’t afford the highway bill. The vote needed a 60-person majority.

Backers of full funding said 35 percent of the 42,000 people killed annually in vehicle crashes die because of road conditions. They also said congestion costs the average peak-hour driver $1,160 a year and the nation $67 billion in wasted fuel and lost productivity.

Bill sponsors also turned back a rebellion from senators who claimed that their states lose out under a formula that guarantees that by 2009 every state will get at least 95 cents back for every dollar it contributes to the trust fund.

With little hope of getting a bill soon, the House voted Feb. 11 to extend the existing highway program for four months, through the end of June. The current program ended last September, but was temporarily extended through the end of this month.

The House Transportation Committee is seeking even more money, $375 billion, and has proposed raising the gasoline tax, an idea strongly opposed by the White House and House GOP leaders.

But one Senate conservative, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said that "probably over time conservatives are going to have to come to grips with the idea that a gas tax increase is going to be the only legitimate way, and honest way, to make up the shortfalls in terms of highway needs."