WASHINGTON – President Bush signed a whopping $286.4 billion transportation bill (search) that lawmakers stuffed with plenty of cash for some 6,000 pet projects back home.
Despite a major thunderstorm around his home in Crawford, Texas, Bush flew Wednesday to Montgomery, Ill., to sign the legislation, the second time this week he has traveled from his ranch to highlight his recently-passed priorities.
"I'm here to sign the highway bill because I believe by signing this bill, when it's fully implemented, there's going to be more demand for the machines you make here," Bush told workers at the Caterpillar plant where he penned his name to the bill. The facility makes heavy-duty machinery used in road-building and most other construction.
Bush spoke about the 1,00-page bill under a bright sun at the plant where a crane sported a sign saying "Improving Highway Safety for America." The Chicago suburb is represented by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who introduced Bush at the event.
"Our economy depends on us having the most efficient, reliable transportation system in the world. If we want people working in America, we've got to make sure our highways and roads are modern. We've got to bring up this transportation system into the 21st century," Bush said.
The House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass the six-year highway and mass transit legislation just before heading home for a summer break. They left Washington carrying promises of new highway and bridge projects, rail and bus facilities, and bike paths and recreational trails they secured for their states and districts.
Bush had threatened to veto the bill if the final version was too fat for his liking, and it took nearly two years for Congress to reach a compromise the White House would accept.
"There were a number of members of Congress who wanted a $400 billion highway bill," Al Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council at the White House, said Tuesday in defending the president's decision to accept the bill even though it was $30 billion more than Bush recommended.
"Because of this president, it is a $286 billion highway bill," he told reporters at a briefing following Bush's meeting with his economic team.
Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the measure a "bloated, expensive bill" that the Bush should veto.
It is fitting that the president is signing this legislation in Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district, Ashdown said, "because the speaker's district has the third highest amount of highway pork in the nation."
The bill contains more than 6,371 special projects valued at more than $24 billion, or about 9 percent of the bill's total cost, he said. The distribution of the money for these projects "is based far more on political clout than on transportation need," Ashdown said.
Alaska, the third-least populated state, for instance, got the fourth most money for special projects — $941 million — thanks largely to the work of its lone representative, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (search). That included $231 million for a bridge near Anchorage to be named "Don Young's Way" in honor of the Republican.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (search), R-Calif., nailed down $630 million, including $330 million for the Centennial Corridor Loop in Bakersfield, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Lawmakers backing the bill say projects were included on merit. They say money for infrastructure is well spent, especially considering that traffic congestion costs American drivers 3.6 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of wasted fuel every year.
Substandard road conditions and roadside hazards are a factor in nearly one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities a year, officials say, and every $1 billion in highway construction creates 47,500 jobs.
But Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., one of four senators who opposed the bill, said the estimated $24 billion lawmakers directed to special projects was "egregious." He has cited dozens of what he calls "interesting" projects. His favorite: $2.3 million for landscaping along the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California.
"I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say?" McCain asked about the fiscally conservative president.