WASHINGTON – The House approved a mammoth highway and transit bill Thursday that aims to reduce traffic congestion nationwide and bring jobs to every lawmaker's home district.
The White House said the bill was "long overdue" but warned, as the measure moved to the Senate, that it would be subject to a presidential veto if it rose above the $284 billion the House approved.
The bill, passed 417-9, would guarantee $225.5 billion over a six-year period to the Federal Highway Administration (search), $52.3 billion to the Federal Transit Administration (search) and more than $6 billion for safety programs.
It will be "the signature domestic legislation in this Congress in terms of the positive impact on the economy of this country," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (search) of Oregon, a senior Democrat on the Transportation Committee.
Congress has been trying to produce a new highway bill since the last six-year plan, funded at $218 billion, expired in September 2003. But the legislation got hung up last year when lawmakers couldn't work out a formula for dividing the money among the states and the White House issued a veto threat over spending levels it said would deepen the federal deficit.
On Wednesday the administration applauded the House bill but said President Bush would be advised to veto anything above $284 billion. It issued another veto threat over a clause in the bill requiring that it be reopened in the future, with the intent of adding more money, if goals aren't reached for making disbursement among the states more equitable.
"With the opener we have the opportunity to come back and do this again," said Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the Transportation Committee and a leading proponent of more infrastructure spending.
Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, also said the House bill was inadequate to make inroads on a congestion problem that affects one-third of all travel on major roadways and results in $67 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel annually. "We probably need $500 billion to make sure this country keeps moving," he said.
Currently, states are guaranteed 90.5 cents back for every dollar they contribute, through the federal gas tax, to the federal highway trust fund. "Donor" states that pay more than they get back, many of them in the fast-growing South and Southwest, are demanding a minimum guarantee of 95 percent.
The House bill would increase the pot of money to be divided among the states by including in the calculations the special projects requested by members.
Those special projects will be another issue as the bill moves to the Senate. Senators are generally less sympathetic to carving out such "earmarks" for members, which fiscal conservatives consider the worst example of park-barrel spending.
This time the House included approximately 4,100 projects, a record, worth an estimated $12.4 billion, according to the fiscal watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Last-minute changes in the bill benefited Alaska, Young's home state. Bridges near Anchorage and Ketchikan, originally funded at $3 million each when the bill was introduced, would get $200 million and $125 million, respectively. Taxpayers for Common Sense said the special projects would be worth an average $1,100 for every Alaskan.
Young's spokesman, Steve Hansen, said Alaska has half the area of the rest of the United States and, as the nation's newest state, has the most infrastructure needs.
Funds for an interstate ramp and bridge in the Oberstar's district were bumped up from $900,000 in the original bill to $7 million.
The Senate Environment and Work Force Committee is to take up the highway bill next week. Lawmakers hope to send a compromise measure to the president before the latest temporary extension of the old highway bill expires May 31.
Among the amendments accepted Thursday was one proposed by a bipartisan group from New Jersey, led by Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, that would let states ban political contributions by contractors bidding for highway projects. New Jersey has tried to prohibit such "pay-to-play" practices, but was warned by federal officials that the state risked losing federal highway money because it was violating competitive bidding rules.
Another amendment that passed — promoted by Rep. Michael Rogers, R-Mich. — concerns devices that change a traffic signal's phase time. It would ban the sale of such devices to anyone except government-approved users, such as fire departments and police officers.
The measure also calls for spending:
— $590 million on high risk rural roads, where 61 percent of all highway fatalities occur.
— $634 million in incentive grants to help states combat alcohol and illegal drug use by drivers.
— $830 million for a new program to fund the construction of dedicated truck lanes.