House Panel Passes Slimmer Highway Bill

After protesting the administration's limits, the House Transportation Committee (search) on Wednesday approved a slimmed-down spending bill that would funnel $275 billion into highway and mass transit projects over the next six years.

The legislation sent to the full House by voice vote was $100 billion under what committee chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and most on the panel said was needed to deal with the nation's congested, unsafe and deteriorating transit systems.

The White House, citing the need for belt-tightening in an age of rising budget deficits, has proposed a highway budget (search) of $256 billion through 2009 and threatened a presidential veto of any amount that exceeded that ceiling to any extent.

The Senate in February on a 76-21 vote passed a $318 billion bill. The House could take up its version as early as next week.

To show its unhappiness with the White House spending limits, the committee also approved, by voice vote, legislation allowing for $375 billion in spending.

Young said he would report the smaller bill to the full House, while expressing his disappointment at not getting the fuller amount. Failure to address the current infrastructure crisis, he said, "will leave our country behind in protecting the integrity of our economic base. It will reduce the quality of life of our citizens."

The committee did insert into the bill a provision allowing Congress to take another look at the bill again in two years, when a stronger economy might warrant a boost in spending. "With this bill we say we live to fight another day," said Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the panel.

Advocates of a more robust bill also stressed that it could create hundreds of thousands of new construction jobs in a jobless economic recovery.

Rep. William Lipinski, D-Ill., leading Democrat on the highways subcommittee, said it was ironic that the White House was opposing the $375 billion bill when the jobs issue was the biggest obstacle to the president's re-election. "I had really believed that they would come to their political senses."

Young and Oberstar had proposed paying for the larger bill by raising the federal gas tax, which has stayed at 18.4 cents per gallon over the past decade, by about 5 cents. The gas tax goes into the highway trust fund, which is supposed to finance all federal grants to the states for transit projects.

The White House strongly opposed any tax increase to pay for a bigger bill, but Oberstar said the general public would support it. People, he said, would "rather pay that 5 cents than be stuck in traffic."

The $275 billion bill, up from $218 billion for the previous six-year period, also undermined a goal of assuring that by 2009 states will get back at least 95 cents for every $1 they contribute to the highway trust fund.

Some of the larger and faster-growing states, including California, Texas and Florida, have long complained that they don't get back what they pay into the fund. One of the White House's strongest allies, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has pushed hard for assuring that every state gets at least a 95-cent rate of return. "We're not giving up on the issue," he said Tuesday.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (search) said a 95 percent return to donor states would be impossible under a $275 billion bill without cutting real highway funding for 23 donee states.

It also estimated that the House bill would create 429,000 fewer highway jobs and 120,000 fewer transit jobs than the Senate-passed bill.